This Sunday’s New York Times Magazine cover story, “The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food,” stirs up the debate over just how sincere some major food and beverage companies are about being part of the solution to the obesity crisis. Online since Wednesday, it is excerpted from Salt, Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, which will be released by Random House Tuesday.
The gist of the article -- that companies formulate, market test, produce, package and peddle foods that consumers want to eat, damn the caloric consequences –- is hardly revelatory. “What! Food companies have marketing departments? I HAD NO IDEA,” reads one comment to the story on the Times site.
But author Michael Moss, an investigative reporter for the Times who won a Pulitzer in 2010 for his “relentless reporting on contaminated hamburger and other food safety issues” and was a finalist for the prize in 2006 and 1999, has talked to more than 300 sources within the industry and come up with some startling admissions, memos and inside baseball tales of insularity and intrigue.
The piece begins with a 1999 convocation of CEOs and presidents from 11 of the largest food companies -- including Kraft, Nabisco, General Mills, Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola and Mars -- hosted in Minneapolis by James Behnke, Pillsbury’s chief technical officer at the time. One of the fathers of microwaveable popcorn, Behnke had become alarmed by conversations he’d been having with “a group of food-science experts who were painting an increasingly grim picture of the public’s ability to cope with the industry’s formulations.”
Kraft VP Michael Mudd kicked off the proceeding with a 114-slide PowerPoint outlining the severity of the developing obesity crisis, leading to a suggestion that the industry pursue scientific studies to understand “what was driving Americans to overeat” with the intent of creating a “code to guide the nutritional aspects of food marketing, especially to children.”
Mudd’s argument, and the purpose of the meeting in the first place, was intended to rally the assembled behind the ideas that “the industry should make a sincere effort to be part of the solution. And that by doing so, we can help to defuse the criticism that’s building against us.”
General Mills CEO Stephen Sanger, riding a sugar high fueled by Yoplait and Go-Gurt, responded with an argument to the contrary that’s reconstructed by Moss from interviews with three attendees. I don’t think I need to issue a spoiler alert before I tell you that, for all of Pillsbury’s good intentions, the meeting was for naught.
Moss was an expert panelist on PBS’ “NewHour” last night, discussing a new Centers for Disease Control report that “Offers Glimmer of Progress on Altering U.S. Obesity Trend,” as the NewHour’s website puts it.
“American adults have made a little progress in recent years in cutting back on calories from fast food, but children are still consuming too much fat, U.S. health researchers say,” Reuters’ Susan Heavey reports. “The CDC found in a separate report that while American children, on average, are consuming fewer calories overall than they used to, the percentage of their calories from artery-clogging saturated fat was still above optimal levels.”
Moss points out to NewHour moderator Ray Suarez that the poor economy is one reason why adults may been eating less junk food outside the home, but says that he found that “fast food-type products have been moving into the grocery store, where you see more entirely prepared meals ready to eat in the school lunchroom or at home that have almost the caloric loads and the salt-sugar-fat loads as fast food restaurants.”
The CDC report also found that “people who were already obese consumed more fast food in this same period,” Suarez points out. Moss replies that food companies and fast food chains alike target heavy users, “[putting] most of their marketing and efforts on encouraging those consumers to maintain their high levels of consumption.”
Another panelist, Dr. William Dietz, former director of the division of nutrition, physical activity, and obesity at the CDC, does allow that “some” food companies “have gotten the message, both, I think, from the public health advocates and increasingly from the public, that things need to change.”
Dietz points out that although the new report finds a daily decrease in caloric intake of 150 for boys and 80 for girls, obesity statistics are flat for girls and increasing in boys. This means that they are moving less, he says, in calling for a return of physical education to the schools.
“Physical activity reduces the risk factors associated with obesity, like elevated cholesterol, like elevated insulin and glucose levels, like elevated blood pressure,” he says.
All of which will eventually lead to radically elevated medical bills, as Steven Brill’s long and explosive “Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills Are Killing Us” reveals in a Time special report that also went online yesterday. I highly recommend it.