The Food Industrial Complex and the Obesity Epidemic

Dr. Kim Brownley

The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Michael Moss, best known for his reporting on food safety and the dangers of contaminated meat, has a new page-turner coming out this week titled, “Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us.”  In this book, he delves into the world of processed and packaged foods, exposing the science and high finance behind “addictive junk food.” Moss introduces us to numerous industry executives from companies such as Coca-Cola, Kraft, Pillsbury, and Oscar Mayer, and he takes us behind the scenes to their 1999 closed-door meeting with a one-item agenda: accountability – how to deal with the grim reality that their highly profitable products were contributing to the emerging obesity epidemic.

Moss tells a compelling tale with interchangeable characters and plots: CEOs searching for pathways to redemption (and job security) amidst apparently diametrically opposed forces demanding food that is simultaneously healthy AND good-tasting AND convenient AND profitable; product development schemes that capitalize on science-driven concepts like “bliss point”, “sensory specific satiety”, and “vanishing caloric density”; marketing strategies that target kids as a means of expanding market share and locking in future consumer loyalty and that are built upon the proven principle of the “heavy user” (i.e., that increasing sales to existing high volume consumers is more efficient and profitable than expanding sales to new consumers); and allegiance to the cardinal rule, “when in doubt, add sugar.”

Moss tells the story of how General Mills’ Yoplait yogurt (which is often perceived as a wholesome snack despite having twice as much sugar per serving as their Lucky Charms cereal) beget Go-Gurt, the kid-friendly squeezable tube version that grossed $100 million in its first year.  He tells the story of how Oscar Mayer’s Lunchables (neatly packed trays with single serving portions of processed meat, cheese, and crackers), which were initially marketed to working moms on the go looking for quick options for their kids’ packed school lunches, later morphed into Fun Packs (Lunchables that include a candy dessert and sugary drink), and eventually paved the way for Maxed Out (a souped-up Fun Pack with 9 grams of saturated fat, 13 teaspoons of sugar, and 2/3 of the daily recommended sodium maximum for kids). Despite flattening sales through the mid 2000’s in light of push-back from public health experts and critics, Lunchables experienced a resurgence in 2010 (boosted in part by a $20 million ad campaign touting its new versions containing fruit), finishing with its best-ever sales and growth trends and continuing to gather momentum as dollar sales jumped 11.56% to $569 million in the year ending March 20, 2011.That year the brand commanded nearly 70% of the refrigerated meat, cheese, cracker and dessert category.

Some other interesting tidbits I learned reading Moss’ report . . . did you know?

  • There is just as much if not more sugar in a ½ cup of Prego spaghetti sauce as in 2 Oreo cookies.
  • As we age, we tend to replace meals with snacks; baby boomers are a major target of snack food marketing, especially salty snacks like chips.
  • There is a device specifically designed to simulate a chewing mouth; this device is used to determine the “perfect break point” for a chip (which turns out to be four pounds of pressure per square inch). The degree to which food development and marketing is empirically driven can be mind-boggling!
  • One (supposed) rationale for not producing lower-salt snack foods is that it will lead to greater snack food consumption.
  • A Coca-Cola executive who dared to steer the company away from marketing to schools was fired after bottling companies complained that placating “crazy leftist school districts” was ruining their business. Alas, there is a silver lining to this story. That same executive went on to champion the successful and profitable marketing of snack-size bags of carrots. In his own words, he is re-paying his “karmic debt.”

As I reflect on Moss’ exposé, it is easy to be discouraged by what appears to be an overwhelming force against positive, healthy change in our food environment. But, I am also reminded that I am a stakeholder. No, I don’t literally mean I have a financial investment in these corporations. Rather, I am a stakeholder in the greater public interest of promoting healthy weight through healthy eating. Instead of getting caught up in a ‘blame game’ or advocating (and waiting) for our government to step in and legislate change, I choose to nurture my investment by doubling down on the power of choice, one person at a time, starting with me. In 2013, I will be increasing my patronage of local farmers’ markets, cultivating my own backyard garden, and re-committing myself to preparing and eating healthy whole foods at home. Will you join me?