Our obsession with sugar, salt and fat(II INSTALLMENT)+III INSTALLMENT
You focus heavily on the success of Lunchables to appeal to kids. What fascinated you about their creation?
Lunchables was an incredible stroke of marketing genius. Especially when they came up with the idea of making pizza Lunchables.
They asked mothers whether they thought their kids would eat this cold pizza that they assembled themselves, and the mothers said, "Are you kidding me? That sounds so awful." But when they turned to the kids and asked, "Hey, what do you guys think?" the kids said, "Yeah! That sounds really interesting."
They realized that the overwhelming attraction to the Lunchables wasn't the taste. It's the empowerment. It's about letting kids have control and manipulate what they're eating. They came up with this brilliant Lunchable slogan which was, "All day you have to do what they say, but lunch time is all yours." That resonated deeply with children and sales just went through the roof.
The darker side of Lunchables is that it brought fast food into the grocery store, which has become a real concern given the obesity crisis.
The CDC put out a recent report saying consumption of fast food has declined from 13% of our calories to 11%. There is some reason to believe that it was due to the recession, because people were trying to cut back on going out to eat. The question is what are they substituting for that fast food?
If you look at grocery stores in the last decade or more, there's been an increase in foods that try and emulate fast foods. It's like the industry has moved into the grocery store.
Were you surprised by how many scientists and food company executives avoid their own products?
It was everything from a former top scientist at Kraft saying he used to maintain his weight by jogging, and then he blew out his knee and couldn't exercise, his solution was to avoid sugar and all caloric drinks, including all the Kool-Aid and sugary drinks that Kraft makes.
It ranged from him to the former top scientist at Frito Lay. I spent days at his house going over documents relating to his efforts at Frito Lay to push the company to cut back on salt. He served me plain, cooked oatmeal and raw asparagus for lunch. We toured his kitchen, and he did not have one single processed food product in his cupboards or refrigerator.
The scientists and executives were pretty honest about their roles in creating unhealthy food. Did you get the impression they felt guilty about their products?
One reason they don't eat their own products, is that they know better. They know about the addictive properties of sugar, salt and fat.
As insiders, they know too much. I think a lot of them have come to feel badly. But not blaming themselves necessarily, because the older ones invented a number of these products back in the days when dependency on them was much lower. In the 70s and the 80s for example, we were eating more home cooked meals from scratch and eating more mindfully. As society evolved and we became more dependent on these conveniences, these people came to see their work with real misgivings.
The inventor of the Lunchables, Bob Drane, wishes mightily that the nutritional aspects of that product could've been made better. He is still hoping it will be made better. They came to have regrets about their work in the context of the health effects their products seem to have that go hand-in-hand with society's increasing demand of their products.
You highlight some examples of companies trying to make their food healthier. Are there any changes you find particularly positive?
I was really struck by the concerted effort by Kraft to embrace an anti-obesity initiative. At first they tried to rally the whole industry to collectively cut back and try to fight obesity, including down-formulating the amount of salt, sugar and fats they were using.
But when that failed, and the rest of the companies refused to join, Kraft set off on its own. It cut back on its marketing of sugary products to children and rejiggered it's packaging so it would tell people how much salt, sugar and fat in calories were in each package, not just in a tiny little serving.
The most revolutionary thing was that they ordered their food scientists to limit the salt, sugar and fat in their products. This was a company where every ounce of their effort for decades and decades had gone into making products as hugely appealing and addictive as possible. Mind you, these are not companies that want people to get fat or unhealthy, that's not in their business interests, but they do want people to buy as much of their products as they possibly can.
To have Kraft then say to itself, "Wait a minute, maybe there's some other competing interest to pay attention to" was mind blowing. Ultimately, they ran into the problem that the whole industry faces, which is the huge pressure from Wall Street and the investment community to increase profits.
What do you think is the greatest obstacle standing in the way of federal regulation of salt, sugar and fat?
I think the USDA is badly conflicted. It has multiple missions, and one of the biggest is to support the agricultural industry. This plays out most significantly in the area of cheese and beef. The USDA has become a partner with the dairy industry and the beef industry in promoting increased consumption of cheese and red meat at a time when its own nutritionists are encouraging people to cut back because both are heavily laden with saturated fat, which is linked to heart disease.
This largely explains why cheese consumption has tripled in this country since the 70s to as much as 33 pounds per person per year. On the flipside, the USDA has this tiny little operation that creates things like the food pyramid and dietary guidelines to encourage people to limit their consumption of saturated fat, but the budget for those efforts is miniscule compared to budget for promoting consumption.
One of the key things for moving forward is that the playing field needs to be leveled in terms of pricing. We all know we should be eating more fresh vegetables and fresh fruits. When you hit that part of the store and you see that blueberries cost $5 for a little basket and you can wheel over to the center of the store and see all these power bars and seemingly healthy things that are in fact loaded with salt, sugar and fat and they are half the price or a third the price, and there are all these other things that can fill up your cart for much less money.
That's a really difficult thing for families to deal with. Everyone is convinced that the government subsidies that support processed food need to be shifted over in some way to fresh fruits and vegetables or it's going to continue to be hard for even people who want to eat better to do so financially.
Do you think there's any change in sight?
I think we are at a real tipping point here. What I hear from people inside the food industry is that the food giants are scared to death right now. The pressure from Wall Street on profits has never been greater. The pressure from consumers for better, healthier products has never been greater . The pressure from the White House to do something to fight obesity is increasing.
Our obsession with sugar, salt and fat(III)
The other problem they're having is that they've cut way back on the pure science and research that they used to do, and so many of the scientists I've talked to are pleading with these companies to start putting more money into inventing new products that both taste good and are healthy. I think that will be key to getting out of this mess we are in.
Have any of your eating and purchasing habits changed since writing this?
I have two boys age 8 and 13 and it certainly makes things difficult.
My wife, like so many people, works outside the home like I do and our mornings are totally crazy. That said, we've been working on breakfast. We get the boys to eat 100% whole wheat toast and they really don't notice the difference between white bread and wheat. We arbitrarily set a limit on cereals of 5g of sugar per serving, which they find kind of fun because they can go into the cereal aisles and hunt for cereals that have that much sugar or less.
They may have to reach low or reach high to find them, because they're not at eye level, but basic Cherrios have one gram per serving which is fantastic and they love it. If you engage kids in the process of getting healthier, they rise to the occasion. They are smart and they're eager.
Do you have any advice for people going into the grocery store who want to eat healthier?
Make a list and stick to it.
When you get into the center aisle, be careful in the middle part because that's the highest selling area, and where they put the most heavily laden salt and sugary products.
Also, look first at the front of the packaging. That's where they hit you with things like "low fat" and "low sugar" and "added calcium" and vitamin this and vitamin that. Take those as warning signs. When they say low fat, it's often loaded with sugar to make up for the reduction in fat. Or likewise, low salt is often loaded with sugar and fat to make up for the low salt. When they splash the phrase, "added calcium" on the front, that's often a signal that the thing is loaded in all three of the pillars.
Lastly, spend some time with the nutrition facts box. It has to be on every package now. It can be really revealing as to what exactly is in the package.
Pay attention to the number of servings per container, because the companies know that people will typically eat a package of cookies that has three servings in it, all at once. You have to do the math yourself, because they will list the nutrient content based on one serving, which will dramatically understate the amount of nutrient load you're getting by eating the package.
Very few of us can avoid processed foods all together. Our lives will not allow it. I'm certainly in that category. But ultimately we are the ones who decide what to buy, what to eat and how much to eat, and that's a very powerful thing when we walk into the grocery store.
I hope the book can help people to understand everything the food giants are throwing at you in terms of formulating, marketing and advertising. I think you come away feeling more empowered to take control of that decision-making process yourself.
This story was originally published on TIME.com