Processed food is killing you, and food makers don’t care

In 1999, a secret meeting was held by the CEOs of 11 major American food companies — big names like Kraft, Nabisco, Coca-Cola, and General Mills. The meeting was called by a Pillsbury executive, a former food scientist who was instrumental in creating some of the industry’s best-loved packaged foods like microwaved popcorn. He had grown concerned by the rising levels of obesity, hypertension, diabetes, and other health problems in the country — in particular, in children. So he and a handful of others called the meeting to warn their fellow executives and CEOs that they may have gone too far, that their products — and accompanying marketing tactics — were posing such an enormous risk to the public, leading to a national health crisis.

The meeting, as you may have guessed, did not go as planned.

A vice president at Kraft kicked off the summit, saying, “I very much appreciate this opportunity to talk to you about childhood obesity and the growing challenge it presents for us all. … We feel sure that the one thing we shouldn’t do is nothing.”

As he spoke he clicked through more than 100 slides of startling facts and figures that portrayed just how serious Americans’ health concerns had become. Food manufacturers, the Kraft executive said, were being given the blame.

He then said something intending to both shock attendees and spur them into action. It may have shocked them, but as for getting them to act, it may have had the opposite effect.

“As a culture, we’ve become upset by the tobacco companies advertising to children, but we sit idly by while the food companies do the very same thing. And we could make a claim that the toll taken on the public health by a poor diet rivals that taken by tobacco. If anyone in the food industry ever doubted there was a slippery slope out there, I imagine they are beginning to experience a distinct sliding sensation right about now.”

He concluded his prepared presentation by imploring to his fellow executives: “We are saying 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.”

When the executive concluded, another — an invited guest, not one of the meeting’s masterminds — stood to speak. Rather than thanking the Kraft executive for his message, or even fully acknowledging the facts laid bare before him, this CEO of a powerful company did the opposite. He threw the blame back on consumers.

His words were not recorded, but attendees reported that the executive said customers are “fickle,” changing their dietary concerns from one minute to the next. He said that when it came down to it, consumers didn’t care about nutrition; all they cared about was taste. So that’s what his company was going to keep doing — giving the public what they wanted, not what they needed. And he certainly wasn’t going to change the tactics that had made his company a multi-billion dollar industry leader. He would direct his company to carry on just as it had before, with perhaps an ever stronger push as profits grew, and he urged his fellow attendees to do the same.

grocerystore

Photo by Jeremy Brooks

 

The story I just told you may sound like the stuff of fiction, or at least just some nefarious conspiracy theory destined to become a made-for-TV movie. But actually, it’s completely true.

The story above was related in an investigative piece by Michael Moss, published in 2013 in the New York Times under the headline “The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food.” The piece contains much more than the details of this meeting: “What I found, over four years of research and reporting,” Moss writes, “was a conscious effort — taking place in labs and marketing meetings and grocery-store aisles — to get people hooked on foods that are convenient and inexpensive.”

In Moss’s article you will learn that the people who design, produce, market, and sell snack foods, junk foods, and grocery store staples not only know about the health problems facing consumers, they know that their products are largely to blame for causing them. And yet they don’t care. They press on, misleading and dazzling Americans with lab-created food that’s slowly killing them one bite at a time. They’re able to do this because they know exactly what it takes to get customers addicted to their food and buy more, more, more. They know this because it’s the primary goal of their industry, and it’s studied as much if not more than the consumers they endlessly market.

No, it’s not a conspiracy theory, and it isn’t fiction. This is reality, thoroughly researched and investigated and corroborated by hundreds of people and thousands of pages of evidence:

“I talked to more than 300 people in or formerly employed by the processed-food industry, from scientists to marketers to C.E.O.’s,” Moss writes. “Some were willing whistle-blowers, while others spoke reluctantly when presented with some of the thousands of pages of secret memos that I obtained from inside the food industry’s operations. What follows is a series of small case studies of a handful of characters whose work then, and perspective now, sheds light on how the foods are created and sold to people who, while not powerless, are extremely vulnerable to the intensity of these companies’ industrial formulations and selling campaigns.”

Click over to the New York Times to read this fascinating and horrifying piece of journalism that will open your eyes and, hopefully, make you think twice about buying and consuming so many packaged foods again.

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