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Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us on Deadly Junk

Food giants have used food science to train Americans for a lifetime of extra calories, pounds and health risks.

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That children desire intense sweetness isn’t surprising. “Our bodies are hard-wired for sweets,” Moss tells us early on, adding later that “sugar has few peers in its ability to create cravings.” What’s particularly troubling is the ways in which the food giants have used such taste tests to rationalize adding more and more sugar to kid-oriented foods. They’re merely giving the kids what they want, they argue, and if they don’t provide the desired sugar rush in their products, their rivals will. Additionally, by acclimating children at an early age to expect sugar in every food, the food giants are training them for a lifetime of extra calories, extra pounds, and extra health risks, especially diabetes, which can lead to heart disease and stroke, as well as a likelihood of infection and damage to the kidneys, nerves, and eyes.

Fat is another key contributor to the bliss point, and perhaps the most disturbing one because of its power to enhance taste, provide a creamy “mouth feel,” and hide any lurking off-flavors—all without our brains or tummies signaling that it’s time to stop eating. This under-the-radar quality helps explain the genesis of that immortal Alka-Seltzer antacid ad: “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing!” Now you know why—and how easily—it can happen.

 

If you’re not yet outraged enough at the degree to which the food companies exploit our fondness for fat, consider how the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) colludes with them by consistently helping to market and boost the consumption of cheese and red meat. This seeming conflict of interest stems from the USDA’s dual mandate: to protect the nutritional well-being of the public and to promote the agriculture business. Moss’s indictment is searing: “With the American people facing an epidemic of obesity and hardened arteries, the ‘People’s Department’ doesn’t regulate fat as much as it grants the industry’s every wish.” Indeed, since 1985, the USDA has worked with the beef industry to raise approximately $2 billion to encourage more beef and dairy consumption. By contrast, its nutrition center, charged with overseeing nutritional health, operates on a yearly budget of $6.5 million. Guess whose interests win.

Salt’s addictiveness also comes under Moss’s scrutiny. In 2008, researchers at the University of Iowa compared salt to “sex, voluntary exercise, fats, carbohydrates and chocolate, in its possessing addictive qualities.” Although experts warn that by calling cravings for salt, sugar, and fat addictions, we risk trivializing serious biological addictions, parallels do exist. After all, isn’t eating a particular food to avoid or stop the discomfort caused by a craving for it an addictive behavior in itself? And doesn’t the food industry create these cravings in kids, much as the tobacco industry used to, by introducing them to sugary, fatty, and salty foods at an early age, when they’re most vulnerable?

Ironically, most of the food company executives Moss interviewed are careful about their diets, often shunning the very products (including Cheez Whiz and Lunchables) they helped invent and market. The most interesting interview is with former Coca-Cola executive Jeffrey Dunn, who experienced a dramatic turnaround while visiting an impoverished neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro while on a business trip to scope out new markets. Dunn told Moss, “A voice in my head says, ‘These people need a lot of things, but they don’t need a Coke.’ I almost threw up.” These days, Dunn markets a different product: fresh carrots. “We act like a snack, not a vegetable,” he tells his customers, whose numbers are increasing. “We exploit the rules of junk food to fuel the baby carrot conversation. We’re pro-junk food behavior but anti-junk food establishment.”

 
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