My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This exhaustively and impressively researched exposé on the food industry reads like good investigative journalism with an element of suspense thrown in. While I think most people know that processed and pre-packaged food isn’t good for you (for the most part), it’s quite another thing to learn how deliberately bad it is.
Michael Moss somehow was able to procure a number of internal reports and confidential memos from many of the food giants as well as persuade several former executives to talk candidly with him. He also toured processing plants and food labs. After more than three years of work, the results are an insider’s view on how these companies use chemistry, psychology, and biology to manipulate foods to be as addictive as possible, mimic natural foods (eg, simulated browning of bread loaves), and reduce production time while maximizing shelf life. The secret to all of this? Sugar, salt, and fat. Lots and lots of it.
Did you know that Kraft was able to reduce aging time for cheese from 18 months to just days using chemicals? Or that many kids’ cereals were 50-70% sugar in the 1970s and 1980s? (Now they’re a mere 40%-ish.) Or that our own federal agencies that are supposed to look out for our health and nutrition are at best complicit by failing to alter nutritional recommendations and educate the public until watchdog groups forced their hand? Better yet, they are actually part of the problem with their massive dairy and beef subsidies, which means that taxpayers are footing the bill for overproduction and the consequent push for overconsumption.
It was very telling that the executives at these companies purposefully don’t eat the food their companies make. More reprehensible is the deliberate targeting of kids and teens. Sadly, when companies have attempted to make foods less bad for you, sales suffer, competitors take advantage and crank up the sugar, salt, and fat, and they end up pressured by Wall Street to fix it. In the end, they just go back to their old ways.
I think the author sums the book up nicely in the epilogue, which is excerpted below:
If nothing else, this book is intended as a wake-up call to the issues and tactics at play in the food industry, to the fact that we are not helpless in facing them down. We have choices, particularly when it comes to grocery shopping, and I saw this book, on its most basic level, as a tool for defending ourselves when we walk through those doors. Some of the tricks being used to seduce us are subtle, and awareness is key: in-store bakery aromas, soft drink coolers by the checkout lanes, placement of some of the most profitable but worst-for-you foods at eye level, with healthier options on the lowest shelf and fresh fruits and vegetables way off on the side of the store.
But there is nothing subtle about the products themselves. They are knowingly designed – engineered is the better word – to maximize their allure. Their packaging is tailored to excite our kids. Their advertising uses every psychological trick to overcome any logical arguments we might have for passing the product by. Their taste is so powerful, we remember it from the last time we walked down the aisle and succumbed, snatching them up. And above all else, their formulas are calculated and perfected by scientists who know very well what they are doing. The most crucial point to know is that there is nothing accidental in the grocery store. All of this is done with a
It’s apparent why the food industry is so reliant on salt, sugar, and fat. They are cheap. They are interchangeable. They are huge, powerful forces of nature in unnatural foods. And yet, for us, knowing all this can be empowering. You can walk through the grocery store and, while the brightly colored packaging and empty promises are still mesmerizing, you can see the products for what they are. You can also see everything that goes on behind the image they project on the shelf: the formulas, the psychology, and the marketing that compels us to toss them into the cart. They may have salt, sugar, and fat on their side, but we ultimately have the power to make choices. After all, we decide what to buy. And we decide how much to eat.