Not long ago, I spent a few hours with a friend at a hospital emergency room. It was crammed. Here's what I saw: loads and loads of fat people. Fat young mothers with babies who will probably grow up to be as fat as they are. Fat teenaged boys guzzling pop and pizza slices. Fat fathers munching on chips. The young people were fatter than the old ones. Most were first- or second-generation Canadians who had clearly embraced their adoptive country's eating habits with a vengeance.
It is futile to believe we can somehow hound the populace into diets, exercise and healthier food choices. It will never work. Big Food is bigger than all of us. And Big Food has spent billions of dollars developing products that we can't resist – products that created the fattest generation in history.
Author Michael Moss (who was interviewed in Monday's Globe and Mail) spent years finding out how Big Food works its evil magic. His new book, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, will make even the most ardent libertarian think hard. I've always believed that governments have no business telling us what to eat and not eat. But now I'm thinking I might have been wrong.
The trouble is that Big Food knows exactly what we crave. And what we crave is terrible for us. Take potato chips – the biggest weight-gain villain of them all. "The coating of salt, the fat content that rewards the brain with instant feelings of pleasure, the sugar that exists not as an additive but in the starch of the potato itself – all of this combines to make it the perfect addictive food," he says in a book excerpt published by The New York Times on Sunday.
When I was growing up, potato chips were a sometime snack. Today, people eat them all the time, with everything. Sophisticated engineering and relentless marketing turned potato chips into a $15-billion industry.
Our puny willpower is no match for the mighty forces that Big Food can deploy to find your sweet/salty/fat spot. It's no good to say we should just ban potato chips, because everything is junk food. Big Food has even corrupted healthy food like yogurt by adding tons of sugar. These highly processed foods are more convenient and often cheaper than what you can make yourself – if, that is, you still know how to cook. To many people, the processed versions are also tastier.
Mr. Moss's book opens with an extraordinary meeting of Big Food CEOs back in 1999. The subject for their meeting was the growing obesity epidemic and what their companies might be prepared to do about it. The worry was that Big Food could become the next Big Tobacco – a ripe target for stiff taxes and regulation. But no one was prepared to act. They weren't in the business of nutrition. They were in the business of selling stuff that tastes good, forget about Type 2 diabetes.
The more we learn about behaviour, the more we find out how hard it is to self-regulate. People often fail to act in their own best interests. They don't eat healthily, they don't save for retirement. Sometimes, they can be nudged into good behaviour. And sometimes, there's a case for coercive paternalism – especially when society has to pick up the pieces.
Here's the thing: Who does the coercing? If it's me and my friends, I'm all for it. If it's you and your friends, you can go to hell.
If only we could start a grassroots uprising against junk food. Let's seize the chip bags from people's hands and smash the soft-drink machines the way Carrie Nation broke up the saloons. Let's shame Big Food into taking out the bad stuff and replacing it with good stuff.
The trouble is, as Mr. Moss reports, they tried that. And it tasted awful.