This article originally appeared in Food in Canada and is
republished with the permission of the publisher.
The most thought-provoking book I read during my winter vacation
this year was Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked
Us by Michael Moss. Its main thesis is clear from the title
— the big food companies overuse salt, sugar and fat in their
manufacturing of processed food, causing a health crisis in America
that includes a huge growth in obesity, heart disease and diabetes.
He says that they've discovered through new scientific research
how these ingredients can be mixed and added to foods in multiple
ways to turn consumers into virtual addicts. Moss is not as
irritatingly preachy and elitist as his urban foodie colleague
Michael Pollan, but the book is a trenchant polemic by yet another
New Yorker who doesn't like big food corporations. I have my
own biases, as the former regulator of these food giants and later
having acted for many of them, and I'm not a scientist, so
I'll refrain from listing my many concerns with his main
premise. But the issues he raises deserve serious debate.
By now the book is a bestseller. Many readers will have read the
book already. Mainstream urban media have issued gushing reviews,
never missing a chance to beat up on the food processing industry.
So this is not a conventional book review — I'll just
share three points.
Moss is a good storyteller. For example, we learn of the young
Canadian farmer from Stevensville, Ont. who ends up in 1912 as a
street vendor in Chicago. Tinkering at night in his boarding house,
James Kraft discovers a way to pasteurize cheese and begins selling
it in tin cans. We learn about William Wallace Cargill, the son of
a Scottish sea captain, who buys his first warehouse to store grain
in Iowa in 1865. Today his company is one of the richest in the
world, with sales in 2012 of $133.9 billion, and is still private,
being controlled by his 100 descendants. The exciting story of the
invention of the highly successful Oscar Mayer Lunchables line is
told by the inventor himself. Dean Southworth tells the story of
why and how he invented one of my favourite foods, Cheez Whiz. We
get the inside scoop about how the marketing people at one of the
food giants discovered how to turn its drink made with sugar and
artificial flavours into marketing gold simply by adding a
miniscule amount of real fruit juice. Moss's re-telling of his
2009 story of how he "exposed" as "pink slime"
what many still think is a good product (lean fine textured beef )
should serve as a cautionary tale for any innovative food
Moss's main sources are his many interviews with retired or
fired former food company scientists and executives. Time and
again, fascinating accounts of highly confidential internal
meetings and material are readily given to Moss. These industry
veterans seem to feel no sense of loyalty to their former employers
and, in comfortable retirement in their lovely homes in southern
Florida or California, are beyond reproach and happy to spill the
beans. Many of them insist they never did or would actually eat the
food they invented or sold, and they seem to relish the chance to
try to make amends for their life's work, to unburden
themselves for their many past sins.
Finally, the book ends on an interesting regulatory note. When a
former CEO of one of the largest food giants is asked whether he
thought government should be more aggressive in setting limits on
salt, sugar and fat, he replies: "Regulation may well be the
best way." I have often noticed this paradox. While publicly
critical of regulation, privately companies often welcome
regulation, as this is the only way to have a level playing field.
This is particularly relevant to Canada today as rumours persist
that Canadian regulators are moving scarce resources away from food
standard setting and enforcement of quality and nutritional
labelling in order to focus on food safety. This is a mistake. As
Moss's book demonstrates, what's in our food and how
it's labelled may be as important to our health as the safety
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