The hands that design our junk food.

Photo: Lunchables, by Grant Cornett for The New York Times.

Photo: Lunchables, by Grant Cornett for The New York Times.

Michael Moss, won has previously won a Pulitzer for his coverage of the meat industry, has a new book out on junk food which is excerpted this week in the New York Times Magazine. It’s a long but staggering and important piece. What it shows is an industry intent on maximising its profits at any cost: fine-tuning tastes to give our brains immediate kicks, creating textures that convince us we’re still hungry, and having no concern whatsoever for the impact upon a generation of children who are gradually conditioned to develop an addiction which will hinder their health for life. The social costs of this deception, especially in countries like America which now suffer from an epidemic of obesity, are unfathomable. Fuelled purely by the desire of companies to maintain market shares.

And the worst thing is that the people involved which Moss interviews are largely remorseless. They rationalise their involvement by saying they were just giving people what they wanted, wilfully ignoring the fact that if people understood the impact of what they were eating, they wouldn’t want it, and not considering how demand is in fact deeply determined and shaped by supply. If it all sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Not only because we all already suspected these stories were waiting to be told, but because it reads like a sequel to the scandals of the tobacco industry that came to light in the 90s.

This is how Moss frames the thrust of his findings:

The public and the food companies have known for decades now — or at the very least since this meeting — that sugary, salty, fatty foods are not good for us in the quantities that we consume them. So why are the diabetes and obesity and hypertension numbers still spiraling out of control? It’s not just a matter of poor willpower on the part of the consumer and a give-the-people-what-they-want attitude on the part of the food manufacturers. What I found, over four years of research and reporting, 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. 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. 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.

The example of Lunchables in particular strikes a chord with me. I remember gobbling these up as a kid, and as the article notes, a large part of the appeal was the power you feel over constructing your own lunch, however fatuous that is and now feels. The company knew this and used that fact. They targeted ads at children using the line “All day, you gotta do what they [your parents] say. But lunchtime is all yours.” And because Lunchables were simple and offered meat and cheese and an alternative to a sandwich, parents played along and helped build a billion dollar market. Meanwhile, this all unfolded behind the scenes:

Eventually, a line of the trays, appropriately called Maxed Out, was released that had as many as nine grams of saturated fat, or nearly an entire day’s recommended maximum for kids, with up to two-thirds of the max for sodium and 13 teaspoons of sugar… When I asked Geoffrey Bible, former C.E.O. of Philip Morris, about this shift toward more salt, sugar and fat in meals for kids, he smiled and noted that even in its earliest incarnation, Lunchables was held up for criticism. “One article said something like, ‘If you take Lunchables apart, the most healthy item in it is the napkin.’

I think the question of how we regulate information as a society, legislate against commercial deception and regain control and understanding of what enters our mouths – I think that’s going to be a key question of our time. The food industry has grown into an untamed, amoral and unimaginably dangerous beast. We’ve allowed a system to be constructed in which CEOs are the main determinants of our social direction. It’s the crazy side of capitalism that undoubtedly needs curing.

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