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Food industry adds addictive salt, sugar and fat to seduce consumers

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'"I feel so sorry for the public."

That's the admission of a contrite Frito Lay exec, reflecting on the health crisis in North America he says has been perpetrated by the giants of the food industry.

Now retired, he is quoted in American journalist Michael Moss's absorbing and concisely titled new book Salt Sugar Fat.

According to the food industry experts Moss interviews, nutrition be damned. All the resources of Kraft, General Foods and Nestlé are directed to beating each other for market share and profit, with consumers in North America showing the consequences of their zeal.

Today in the United States, one-third of adults and one fifth of children are obese. It's not much different north of the border -- the average Canadian adult is 25 pounds heavier than in 1960, and the rate of obesity in children is similarly unsettling.

The weapons in the food industry's war are simple and seductive. Sugar and fat added to processed foods turn people into food addicts and keep them buying more.

A New York Times reporter, Moss won a Pulitzer Prize in 2010 for his investigation of the dangers of contaminated meat. For Salt Sugar Fat, his first book, he spent 31/2 years sifting through documents and interviewing current and former food industry executives.

In their research labs he saw hundreds of scientists tinkering with ingredients and formulae, working tirelessly on the more than 60,000 products found in a modern supermarket, most of which didn't exist 30 years ago.

Moss skilfully relates stories of individuals, companies and specific products, weaving back and forth through the history of the food industry. His narrative voice is reminiscent of Terry O'Reilly, host of CBC Radio's Under the Influence, and his writing is as entertaining as the content is educational and disturbing.

The result is a powerful indictment of the industry. Despite the occasional blip of conscience, food manufacturers focus on altering the shape and structure of sugar, salt and fat molecules to amplify taste and texture, reduce costs and lengthen shelf life.

The goal of research on sugar is to find the "bliss point," the optimal amount of sweetener that causes pleasure, after which the food becomes unpalatable. The bliss point is achieved through thousands of taste tests and meticulous data collection, according to Moss.

Children accustomed to sugar will always want it, guaranteeing permanent customers of processed foods. That's why ad campaigns promoted Sugar Frosted Flakes, Count Chocula and Pop Tarts as breakfast staples, but foods we consume at other meals are also laced with sugar.

After tomatoes, sugar is the second largest ingredient in Prego brand sauces, at a greater concentration per serving than is found in Oreo cookies.

People adore the luscious "mouth-feel" of fat and have no measurable level of intolerance. Cheese is now "the single largest source of saturated fat in the American diet," consumed at a rate of 33 pounds per person a year, triple the rate of consumption in the 1970s.

Ironically, that was when people stopped drinking whole milk -- because of the fat content. Left with tons of milk fat, manufacturers devised methods to serve it back to us, blending cheese into crackers, chips, nachos and a myriad other snack foods. Triple-cheese combinations are common fare atop frozen pizzas and in prepared sandwiches.

But fierce competition means even the iconic Cheez Whiz no longer lists real cheese as an ingredient. A Kraft spokesperson assured Moss "there was still some cheese left in the formula, just not as much as there used to be."

Babies don't automatically like salt, but when it's incorporated into items kids eat, such as potato chips, bacon, soup, ham, hot dogs, French fries and pizza, it creates cravings that lead to high blood pressure and obesity.

Food companies feed us a whopping five billion pounds of salt per year, or 10 to 20 teaspoons each per day, compared to the one teaspoon per day an average person requires.

Moss outlines the psychological methods companies employ to "divine the minds of consumers," from the trustworthy Betty Crocker-type home economists of the 1950s and '60s, hired to undermine lessons about scratch cooking taught in schools, to today's advertising blitzes against claims by doctors or health advocacy groups that their fat-filled, overly salted and sweetened products are killing us.

Some of the executives believe their work is patriotic -- that saving "busy working moms" time in the kitchen relieves stress on the family. Yet, not surprisingly, most of them won't eat the foods they engineer.

The man who plotted the rebirth of the soft drink Dr. Pepper won't touch it. "It's not good for your teeth," he tells Moss, describing the taste as "just awful."

Moss terms the grocery store a battlefield. He hopes his book is a "wake-up call to the issues and tactics at play in the food industry. After all," he says, "we decide what to buy."

Perhaps we should likewise be armed, with this eye-opening book in hand, as we attack the aisles with our grocery carts each week in our own personal battles to buy food.

Harriet Zaidman is a teacher-librarian in Winnipeg. No bags of Cheezies or potato chips were consumed in the writing of this review.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 16, 2013 J10

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