During four years of reporting, Moss met a handful of prescient executives who tried to steer their companies toward healthier products and more responsible marketing. Jeffrey Dunn, a former president and chief operating officer for Coke, launched Dasani, a bottled-water company, and pushed to stop marketing Coke in public schools. In 2003, senior executives at Kraft took the unprecedented move of publishing the salt, sugar, fat and calorie content for the whole package, instead of the much lower single-serving figure, right on the food’s label. Kraft also stopped advertising unhealthy products to children. But most of these executives ended up quitting in frustration or getting fired for their unconventional views. Dunn, for example, now uses his marketing acumen to sell baby carrots.
This is not a prescriptive book, and Moss offers no solutions — aside from encouraging readers to choose fresh fruits and vegetables over junk food. He hopes his book will serve as a wake-up call, “a tool for defending ourselves” when we enter the grocery store. Yet after 350 pages of indisputable proof of how Big Food — beholden to Wall Street but not to the public’s health — aggressively targets vulnerable populations such as children and the poor, it’s frustrating that he falls back on a “vote with your fork” refrain. Yes, it’s empowering to change your eating habits. But how can you choose healthy foods if your neighborhood bodegas sell only soda, chips and “fruit and yogurt” breakfast bars (which, as Moss points out, can have more sugar and less fiber than Oreos)?
‘Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us’ by Michael Moss
“An intervention by Washington would certainly seem to be in order,” he writes in his epilogue. But he stops short of offering a blueprint for how government should intervene. Should our elected officials take a page from Finland and require warnings on high-salt products? Should they subsidize fruits and vegetables, making fresh blueberries competitive with Snickers? Eliminate corn subsidies? Urge the FDA to remove fructose from “generally recognized as safe” status? Moss leaves these tough questions to public health advocates and organizations such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest, one of the only groups brave enough to hold both the food industry and thegovernment accountable.
But he does offer a hint as to how we can reverse our distinction of being the most obese country in the world. In the 1950s, he writes, an army of 25,000 home-economics teachers around the country “insisted on promoting home-cooked meals, prepared the old-fashioned way,” and thousands of federal outreach workers taught students how to garden and can. Even then, these advocates of nutritious, inexpensive eating posed a threat to the processed-food industry, which fought back with its own crew of home-ec “teachers,” who held cooking contests with cake mixes.
If we’re serious about weaning kids off Coke, Cinnamon Toast Crunch and Lunchables, the first lady — who has promised to end childhood obesity within a generation — should get behind a revived home-ec program that teaches teenagers not only how to cook and garden but how to see the food industry’s deceptive marketing tactics for what they are: “brightly colored packaging and empty promises.”
writes about food politics, sustainable agriculture and health.