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.”
That’s good news, but the book’s opening scene haunts the rest of the text, reminding us that doing nothing has consequences. In the years since that unsuccessful intervention took place in 1999, Moss reports that, from time to time, individual food companies (most recently Coca-Cola) have promised to limit their advertising reach or lower sugar levels. But these intermittent attempts to adjust the weight scales have generally amounted to little more than corporate public-relations campaigns, ending as soon as rival companies begin encroaching on their customers—or what the business ominously calls their “stomach share.”
Moss’s book is essential reading, but it does have a few faults. First, a clearer timeline would be helpful for readers as he jumps back and forth between his profiles of different companies and executives. Second, and most important, I found it frustrating that after detailing just how difficult the food manufacturers make it to “just say no” to the tasty allure, high convenience, affordable price, and nonstop marketing of processed food, he offers little in the way of advice to help us resist. The advice he does offer is to “think of the grocery as a battlefield, dotted with landmines itching to go off,” and to read food labels. But he explains that the processed-food industry lobbies hard to keep these labels as nonspecific as possible. However, neither of these omissions lessens the power of Moss’s main point, which he’s succeeded admirably in making: we need to wake up to the facts and look before we buy—and before we bite.
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