Three Writers Reveal What’s Wrong. . . and We Propose a Solution
Three recent books provide an inside look at our broken industrial food system, revealing much that is wrong but not necessarily giving us the whole story. The books are Salt, Sugar, Fat by Michael Moss; Pandora’s Lunchbox by Melanie Warner; and Foodopoly by Wenonah Hauter.
Michael Moss is an award-winning journalist employed by The New York Times. In 2010 he won the Pulitzer Prize for an article on serious illness caused by meat contaminated with virulent E. coli, but mostly he reports on subjects other than food and health. Melanie Warner is a freelance writer who also publishes frequently in The New York Times, and who in recent years has concentrated on the subjects of food, artificial flavors, and tobacco. Wenonah Hauter is the executive director of Food & Water Watch in Washington, DC. Of the three writers, she is the only one with a farming background; she owns a working farm in The Plains, Virginia.
SUGAR AND THE OBESITY PROBLEM
In Salt, Sugar, Fat, Moss begins by focusing on sugar. Americans consume per capita seventy-one pounds of caloric sweeteners each year, twenty-two teaspoons per day, split almost equally among cane sugar, beet sugar and high fructose corn syrup. Most processed foods contain a large portion of calories as refined sweeteners— in cookies, cakes, pastries, donuts, candy, meal replacements, sodas and juice, of course, but also in bread, crackers, frozen dinners and other surprising places, such as canned baked beans. A half a cup of Prego Traditional spaghetti sauce contains more than two teaspoons of sugar, as much as three Oreo cookies.
The industry cannot do without sugar; it is very useful as a preservative and provides pleasing texture to food, but mostly the industry adds sugar for its taste.
Industry scientists have conducted intense research into the biology and psychology of why we find sugar so irresistible. Brain scans show that the brain lights up for sugar in the same way it does for cocaine. Thus, Unilever can sell ice cream as the “scientifically proven” way to make ourselves happy.
Sugar is definitely a major culprit in the obesity epidemic. Researcher Anthony Sclafine tried to fatten rats by adding more fat to their feed, but the rats stayed slim; however, the rats went bananas on sugar-laden candies and cookies and dutifully gained weight. Later research, also funded by the industry, found that soda sweetened with high fructose corn syrup indeed caused teenagers to gain weight. The worst thing they found out about soda is that consuming it does not cause you to eat less—the extra calories are invisible.
After much study, food scientists found a “bliss point” for sugar, the precise amount of sweetness that makes a food or drink the most enjoyable. The industry uses the bliss point to perfect formulas for everything from sodas to flavored potato chips. Executives justify the practice by pointing out that infants have a taste for sweetness from the moment they are born— whereas the taste for salt arrives at four or five months. Of course, the sweetness in mother’s milk—and the milk from any mammal—is accompanied by good protein and fats and the full gamut of vitamins, minerals, immune factors and enzymes. Sugar in processed foods is one of many empty and even toxic ingredients.
The industry is constantly developing new products. Most fail. Some are enormously successful. The inventor of a successful product is assured a well-cushioned future in the corporate world of processed food.
Every new product receives extensive testing involving taste tests—often using children—as the food technicians make adjustments to the taste, level of sweetness, color, smell and even the packaging of a new product.
One profitable area of product development is called “line extensions”—new versions of a core product. The introduction of cherry vanilla Dr. Pepper, after years of research and development, was a huge success, one that boosted sales of the original Dr. Pepper as well. Pringles has many line extensions in the form of different flavors, which the company targets to different geographical areas: French Consommé-flavored Pringles sell well in Japan, the Salt & Vinegar flavor is popular in the U.K.; Asians are partial to seafood flavors such as Soft Shell Crab and Salt & Seaweed.
Breakfast cereals rake in enormous profits and are a major source of sugar in American diets, especially the diets of children. Sales of sugary cereals grew from 660 million dollars in 1970 to 4.4 billion dollars by the mid 1980s. Most of these are products of the big three―Kellogg’s, Post, and General Mills.
THE SODA INDUSTRY
It was Robert Winship Woodruff, president of the Coca-Cola Company from 1923 until 1954 and board member until 1984, who turned the company into the giant it is today. During World War II, he instituted a policy wherein every soldier could get a Coke for five cents a bottle―a generation of men and women came home hooked on Coke—and it was Woodruff who began the push for Coke in the Third World. While Coke touts its policy of not advertising to children under twelve years of age, post-war advertising focused on equating Coke with childhood moments of happiness—like going to a first baseball game with dad. Woodruff wanted to make Coke part of the special moments in life, including family meals. Supersizing came in the 1980s. By 1995, two in three children were drinking a 20-ounce bottle of soda daily.
An important part of soda industry sales policy involves convenience stores, where children and teenagers often shop. The industry has made sure that the stacks of soda bottles are right up front. Coke, Pepsi, and the snack food manufacturers have contractors who visit and service the convenience stores every week. Paid by how much they sell, these workers stock and clean their displays, maximizing their visibility by making sure no other items encroach on their space. When one store owner put bananas near the cash register, he was scolded by the soda delivery crew, who claimed the space as their own.
OBSTACLES TO SUCCESS
Back in the 1950s, the real obstacle to the onslaught of sugary convenience foods filling the supermarket aisles was “the army of school teachers and federal outreach workers who insisted on promoting homecooked meals, prepared the old-fashioned way.” There were tens of thousands of these noble souls throughout the country, home economics teachers in schools and extension agents from USDA, who made house calls to teach young homemakers about gardening, canning and meal planning with nutrition in mind. But more and more women had entered the labor force, so the food industry appealed to overworked mothers, “who just didn’t have time to cook.”
The industry created its own army of home economics teachers—glamorous and stylish young women, not dowdy old school teachers, who offered cooking classes in specially built kitchens, teaching young women how to use processed foods. One of these teachers, Betty Crocker, was not even a real person but the invention of the advertising department at Washburn Crosby, which later became General Mills. In radio, magazine and television advertisements, Betty promoted cake mixes with catchy slogans like “grand time savers” and “perfect cake every time.” Show rooms called Betty Crocker’s Kitchens featured classes where women were taught quick-and-easy, heat-and-serve cooking with Bisquick and other General Mills products. It was a carefully calculated campaign to drive American women to convenience foods.
The industry also infiltrated the association of home economics teachers, first with donations and then by sending its own people to reshape the association further, sponsoring candidates for the organization’s top leadership positions. Soon the organization became little more than an extension of the food industry, and gradually faded from relevance.
Concerns expressed about sugar came to the fore in 1975 when Ira Shannon, a dentist, measured the amount of sugar in seventy-eight brands of cereal. One-third of the brands had sugar levels at 10-25 percent; one-third had sugar levels up to 50 percent and 11 cereals were even higher, with Super Orange Crisps coming in at 70.8 percent sugar. The ones most heavily marketed on TV had the highest sugar levels. He was joined by Jean Mayer, a Harvard professor of nutrition and early critic of sugar, who published an article entitled “Is it Cereal or Candy?” in several major newspapers.
All this attention on sugar did have some positive effects. Gerber, for example, dropped the most highly sweetened products from its line of baby foods. Kellogg’s had a different solution: it responded by changing the name of its leading brand, from Sugar Frosted Flakes to Frosted Flakes. Many other cereal makers also quietly dropped the word sugar from their brand names.
In 1976 the Federal Trade Commission brought a complaint against the big three cereal makers, Kellogg’s, Post, and General Mills, accusing them of creating a shared monopoly in order to jack up cereal prices. But the companies mounted a vigorous defense and the case lumbered along until 1982 when the FTC voted to drop it. Meanwhile, FDA refused to acknowledge the fact that sugar in the cereal was a threat.
In 1977, twelve thousand health professionals signed a petition asking the FTC to ban advertising of sugary foods on children’s TV shows. FTC’s activist chairman Michael Pertschuk took up the crusade. The commission recommended a total ban on all advertising for children. Warned by, of all people, Ralph Nader, not to take on this fight—Nader preferred only easy targets, like the safety record of the Chevrolet Corvair― Pertschuk nevertheless pressed forward.
His opponent was a lobbying group led by Tommy Boggs, from the law firm of Patton Boggs, who assembled a war chest of sixteen million dollars (this was in 1977) to fight the FTC. The group got Pertschuk disqualified from overseeing the commission’s hearings, claiming he had prejudged the matter, and succeeded in convincing the The Washington Post and other media to change their stance from support of a ban on children’s advertising, to a position fiercely against the FTC. The Post published an article entitled “The National Nanny” which claimed that the fault lay not with advertising but the weakness of parents. FTC lost key friends on Capitol Hill, Pertschuk was ousted as chairman and, the agenda abandoned, Pertschuk’s replacement James Miller declared, “We are not going to engage in social engineering.”
After that, the cereal companies focused more heavily on advertising than ever—even with ads claiming that cereals like Frosted Mini Wheats could help children do better in school.
The industry had a free ride until the late 1990s, when concerns about obesity became a front page news item. In 1999, the food processors organized a conference attended by the heads of every major processed food company—an industry that is normally intensely competitive. But food company executives were concerned “that people were blaming them for the obesity problem.” The conference took place in Pillsbury corporate headquarters and the first speaker, Michael Mudd, was vice president of Kraft. “The food industry cannot possibly solve the problem alone,” he stated. “The industry should be part of the solution. . . . by doing so, we can help to defuse the criticism that’s building against us.” But a representative of General Mills, maker of the largest line of sugary cereals, immediately objected: General Mills would not pull back, he proclaimed. “The public is not interested in nutrition, they want taste.”
Moss then describes the food industry’s hold on the federal regulators: “The biggest government watchdogs show no teeth when it comes to controlling the industry’s excesses in promoting sugary, high-calorie fare, not only on TV but also in the full range of social media now used by the food industry in its pursuit of kids.”
Another industry crisis occurred in 2009 when the American Heart Association (AHA) issued a recommendation to limit sugar to no more than five teaspoons per day for moderately active women, and no more than nine for sedentary, middle-aged men. The food industry sprang into action. Representatives from every company attended a 2010 summit the AHA held in Washington, DC, arguing that sugar was critical to the entire manufacturing process. To lessen the amount of sugar would jeopardize the nation’s supply of food. No doubt much discussion took place in private because the AHA recommendation faded into the sunset, with little action by the industry to cut back.
While Moss does superlative work exposing the scandal of sugary foods, his book breaks down when it comes to the subjects of fat and salt.
Moss bemoans the fact that Americans are eating more fat―not processed vegetable oils but saturated fat, the kind that causes heart disease, he insists. Americans are getting more saturated fat than they used to in the form of hamburger and cheese, especially on pizza. And low quality cheese is used in processed foods like Cheez Whiz, Cheeze-Its and processed cheese slices, definitely products to be avoided. But Moss is even critical of efforts to market plain old cream cheese—natural beef and cheese are no different from processed cheese products according to Moss, as they are all sources of evil saturated fat.
“Americans now eat 33 pounds per person of cheese per year, which delivers 3100 grams of saturated fat,” warns Moss. That’s less than 1.5 ounces per day of cheese, and less than 2 teaspoons per day of saturated fat—nothing like the 22 teaspoons of sugar that Americans eat daily.
Industry scientists have found that fat lights up the brain the same way that sugar does. Moss notes that growth in cheese sales has mirrored the plunge in whole milk sales. Maybe that’s because we are supposed to get pleasure from our food, and if our brains don’t get the right signals from milk, then we will naturally eat more cheese, or processed food containing cheese.
Moss claims that the shift to lowfat milk was consumer-driven—neglecting to mention that the milk industry joined the government in efforts to convince consumers that lowfat milk was better for them. If consumers chose lowfat milk on their own, it was only after years of anti-saturated fat propaganda.
“When consumers tried to improve their health by shifting to skim milk,” says Moss, “Congress set up a scheme for the powerful dairy industry through which it has quietly turned all that unwanted surplus fat into huge sales of cheese—not cheese to be eaten before or after dinner as a delicacy, but cheese that is slipped into our food as an alluring but unnecessary extra ingredient.” Moss needs a good fact checker. The industry does not put its surplus butterfat into cheese—cheese is made from whole milk with no extra butterfat added. No, the extra butterfat that the industry takes out of milk goes into ice cream, and the industry makes a lot more money by putting the butterfat in ice cream compared to just leaving it in the milk. Why should the industry leave the butterfat in milk destined for growing school children when they can make so much more profit by putting it in ice cream, which the children will be craving after a long, lowfat day? Unfortunately, ice cream delivers much needed butterfat along with a huge wallop of sugar, but Moss is largely silent on the subject of ice cream.
In fact, according to Moss, ice cream doesn’t contain any butterfat at all. Yes, he admits, there is lots of fat in processed foods like chips, crackers, ice cream and cookies, “but these aren’t pumping us full of saturated fat—the type of fat doctors worry about.” Moss faults the USDA for promoting cheese and meat.
And Moss utters not a single word about refined vegetables oils, known to cause cancer, growth problems, auto-immune disease, and now implicated as a cause of heart disease. The vegetable oil industry is far more powerful than the dairy lobby, but Moss has a hands-off policy.
Moss frequently quotes the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), and in fact promotes its agenda, which is to demonize the competition to soybean oil. CSPI, you may remember, was the group that lobbied to replace healthy tallow with partially hydrogenated soybean oil as the preferred fat for frying in the fast food industry.
Lunchables, says Moss, are a bad idea because they are based on meat and cheese, sources of saturated fat. The product was developed by Oscar Mayer to find a market for cold cuts like bologna, which had slipping sales. Between 1980 and 1990, red meat consumption fell more than 10 percent, while consumption of poultry, which has less saturated fat, rose 50 percent. Oscar Mayer marketed lower-fat bologna blended with turkey and hot dogs made with chicken instead of beef, but these failed to catch on. The original Lunchable was modeled on the TV dinner, with slices of processed meat, crackers, and a round piece of processed cheese on a divided tray. The product was marketed to kids as a way to have “control over their lunch.” That plain offering has since morphed into Lunchables containing chips and cookies, candy bars, and Capri-Sun juice packets, just loaded with sugar. By 1995, Lunchables sold 100 million pounds of product, with half a billion dollars in revenue earned and thirty-six million in profits.
In 2011, Lisa Cain, a biologist and mother of two, wrote a blog on five reasons to avoid Lunchables. She cited 37 grams of sugar (as much as a 12-ounce can of Coke), a three dollar price tag and loads of artificial colors, flavors and other additives. Kraft (now owner of Lunchables) countered that parents needn’t worry as kids don’t eat Lunchables every day.
PROCESSED FOOD IN INDIA
As Americans wise up to the dangers of sugar and cut back on sugary foods, the huge population of India has become a target. When U.S. cookie sales fell, an industry survey revealed that “The consumers who loved Oreos, who loved Chips Ahoy!, who loved all our cookies, were finding themselves afraid to go down the cookie aisle because they might buy some and eat it all.” So Kraft took cookies to India. Specifically, on March 3, 2011, Kraft introduced the Oreo to India with a brightly colored blue bus that roamed the country, inviting kids to come aboard for Oreo games. Once inside, there were taught to eat an Oreo properly: “Twist, lick and dunk.” Tang, a drink that has fallen out of favor in America, followed shortly thereafter, as did Toblerone chocolate. The chocolate company expanded its reach in the villages by increasing the distribution of refrigerated coolers, to keep chocolate at the right temperature in the hot Indian weather.
What Moss neglects to tell us is that it was the soybean industry that paved the way for Kraft and other companies. In India, mustard oil was traditionally sold in small quantities, extracted as needed with a small oil press or ghanis. Oil processing provided employment for thousands of artisans and ensured the housewife a fresh product. The oil cake was then fed to cattle. Fresh mustard seed oil also served as mosquito repellent and as a nonpolluting oil in lamps.
According to Indian activist Vandana Shiva, in the late 1990s, within a few months of the advent of “free trade” for soybean oil into India, thousands of Indians fell ill with “dropsy” due to a mysterious adulteration of mustard seed oil. The government banned the sale of all unpackaged edible oils, thus ensuring that all household and community-level processing of edible oils came to a stop. Edible oil production became fully industrialized, and local processing was labeled a criminal act. Thousands of workers were dispossessed of their livelihood, and millions of Indians were denied a healthy oil. Cheap, highly processed soy oil immediately replaced mustard seed oil in the markets. During the crisis, the U.S. Soybean Association pushed for soybean imports as the “solution.” “U.S. farmers need big new export markets. . .” reported one business publication. “India is a perfect match.” Growth was achieved by theft of an important part of the small-scale local economy.
Then the soybean industry targeted ghee. Most ghee sold in India is actually partially hydrogenated soybean oil, marketed as a healthier choice than butterfat.
In his focus on salt, Moss briefly mentions the fact that people used to eat more salt, and that sodium is important for our well-being; but he then falls in lock step with the anti-salt agenda of the Salt Consortium, which would like Americans to reduce salt consumption to under one teaspoon per day—an amount that clearly leads to deficiencies in sodium. Moss compares salt to a narcotic and cites one study which found that children who ate more starchy food wanted more salt—naturally they did, because we need salt to digest starch.
Moss repeats the claim: “If people could go only part of the way . . . by reducing their intake of salt by even half a teaspoon a day, this alone would prevent 92,000 heart attacks, 59,000 strokes and 81,000 deaths, saving the country $20 billion in health care and other costs.” Where have we heard language like this before? Oh yes, it was the McGovern Committee, promising equally impressive reductions in disease if we just stopped eating butter and used margarine instead.
Of course, the food industry needs salt because it hides what the food engineers call “warmed-over flavor,” caused by the oxidation of fats in meat, which gives meat the taste of cardboard. But Moss has nothing to say about additives that are really harmful, like MSG, which the industry can’t live without either—and which deserves equal scrutiny for causing the obesity epidemic. When studying obesity in laboratory animals, scientists feed MSG to make the animals get fat.
“But most of us can’t simply stop eating processed foods,” says Moss, and admits to eating processed food himself. Moss does not have a very high opinion of the American public, which is actually turning away from processed foods, slowly but surely.
Moss is actually playing into food industry hands, with nothing to say about the alternatives to sugar, salt, and (saturated) fat—artificial sweeteners, Senomyx salt substitute and industrial vegetable oils―furthering the agenda of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the organization that did the most to replace healthy saturated fats with processed vegetable oils in the food supply.
With funding from the soy industry, CSPI subtly promotes soy oil and soy foods by demonizing the competition (butter, cheese and meat), has lobbied for artificial sweeteners in dairy beverages for school children, and tacitly endorses the flavor enhancers made by Senomyx.
CSPI has petitioned for reductions in sweeteners used in processed food, arguing that sweetness may be achieved by using less sugar; replacing sugar with starch, gums and other ingredients; using high-potency sweeteners (sucralose, rebiana, etc.) and sweetness enhancers such as those made by Senomyx (cspinet.org/new/pdf/sugar_petition_2-12-13_final.pdf).
In Pandora’s Lunchbox, by Melanie Warner, we learn about the many “starches, gums and other ingredients” the food industry uses not only to lower sugar content, but also to replace natural ingredients and produce food cheaply. Oat fiber is added to ground beef to prevent burgers from shrinking, gums and starches help processed foods keep their shape, algae-based flour helps reduce fat, and slimy milk protein concentrate replaces real cheese in Kraft Singles. (When caught by the FDA for using this unapproved ingredient for cheese, Kraft solved the problem by changing the name of the product, from Pasteurized Processed Cheese Food to Pasteurized Prepared Cheese Product.) Milk protein concentrate is imported illegally from New Zealand, but most of the gums and powders come from China. Chinese firms manufacture 60 percent of the world’s xanthan gum, two-thirds of the MSG, and 40 percent of emulsifiers, stabilizers and thickeners.
Warner reverals that the Chinese also manufacture most of the artificial vitamins that go into breads, crackers, breakfast cereals, multivitamins and other products sold in the supermarkets. Chinese firms make 90 percent of the world’s vitamin C and the bulk of the world’s vitamin D, B1, B2 and B12. Most vitamin plants in the U.S. have closed down—some because they emitted hazardous amounts of air pollutants such as methanol, chloroform and toluene.
Some five thousand additives find their way into our food. The industry uses them to improve texture and make food last longer. Additives help make food taste good by adding desirable flavors or masking undesirable flavors. Additives give food “mouth feel” and make it look attractive. For example Yellow Dye #5 keeps cereals from looking gray when emerging from extruder machines. Propylene glycol—a supposedly nontoxic antifreeze― prevents sugar glazes from darkening and is added to ice cream so it will be soft when taken from the freezer. Modified food starch gives products like guacamole “pulpy textural characteristics,” and absorbic acid and citric acid, preservatives derived from corn, inhibit the growth of fungi, yeast and bacteria.
Much of the “fiber”—touted as healthful—in processed food comes from what are called resistant starches. One of these is extracted from the wastewater of potato processing plants. The starch is then treated with chemicals to strengthen the joints between molecules so that they can’t be broken during digestion. A product called Pen Fibecan replaces up to 20 percent of flour in baked goods and can’t be detected by the taste buds. Other examples include inulin extracted from the roots of chicory plants, polydextrose, a derivative of glucose; soy fiber from soy protein production; and soluble corn fiber, which is added to Splenda. Food enzymes have many applications; they are produced from genetically engineered bacteria or fungi and distributed to the industry in truckloads of sloshy brown liquid or bags of dried tan powder. Very few of these additives are reviewed by FDA or by the manufacturers.
It is additives like these that allow Subway to “fresh cook” tubes of dough right in the store. The dough is prepared not with yeast, but by puffing and thrashing; it requires numerous dough conditioners such as sodium stearoyl lactylate, monoglycerides, diglycerides, ascorbic acid and diacetyl tartaric ester of monoglyceride (DATEM). These help distribute air bubbles throughout the dough, giving it a “fine crumb structure.” In 2001, a truck carrying azodicarbonamide overturned on a Chicago expressway. City fire officials issued a highest hazardous materials alert and evacuated everyone living up to half a mile downwind. The chemical is used in many other bread products, such as those served by McDonald’s, Burger King, Arby’s, Wendy’s, Dunkin Donuts, and Sara Lee. It has largely replaced potassium bromate as a dough conditioner for bread.
Unlike Moss, who attacks saturated fat as evil incarnate, Warner acknowledges that “the current view on fats. . . is more nuanced, as some types of fat, perhaps even some saturated ones, are acknowledged to be beneficial.” And while Moss is mute on the dangers of vegetable oils, Warner reveals many nasty details.
In 1909, 82 percent of the fat we ate was animal fat―the original Oreo had a lard-based filling. Today 44 percent of our total fat intake is of animal origin and 66 percent comes from processed vegetable oils. Her request to tour the ADM soybean oil plant was denied, but she nevertheless provides us with plenty of information about soybean oil manufacture. The dangers begin with hexane, used to extract the soy oil from the seeds. Hexane is a neurotoxin and the vegetable oil industry is the largest emitter of hexane. The industry insists that the use of hexane is safe because only traces remain.
After extraction, soybean oil is bleached using hydrochloric acid and deodorized in a vacuum at 500 degrees Fahrenheit. Dimethylpolysiloxane is added to keep the oil from getting frothy in the fryers. TBHQ, an additive used as an antioxidant in industrial seed oils, is linked to convulsions, liver enlargement and stomach tumors. It is allowed in “small quantities”―but who’s testing?
The industry has reduced trans fats in our food supply, but these have been replaced by liquid vegetable oil, mostly composed of omega-6 linoleic acid. When heated, linoleic acid turns into hydroxynonenals (HNEs), particularly toxic aldehydes that migrate into the food being fried. HNEs interfere with hormone production, enzyme production and protein synthesis, and are thought to be causal agents for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, atherosclerosis, cancer, and chronic inflammation. Warner notes that consuming less partially hydrogenated oil has ironically led us to consume more liquid vegetable oils with their toxic load of aldehydes, which may be worse for us. Anyone demonizing saturated fat and promoting vegetable oils in their place—as Moss does—is hiding some ugly facts.
Foodopoly: The Battle Over the Future of Food and Farming in America, by Wenonah Hauter, looks at consolidation in the food industry, including the takeover of organic food companies by the conventional food processing industry, and describes how the food industry has taken over government agencies designed to police its activities.
For example, Pepsi owns Sierra Mist, Mountain Dew, Mug Root Beer, AMP Energy, numerous fruit punches, Gatorade, SoBe drinks, a range of frappucinno products, Aquafina, and many branded fruit juices. The Pepsi subsidiary Quaker Oats includes Aunt Jemima mixes and syrups, Cap’n Crunch cereal and Rice-A-Roni. The Frito Lay line includes Lay’s potato chips, Doritos, Ruffles, Cracker Jack, Cheetos, and Tostitos.
Dean Foods owns Horizon organic milk, Silk organic soy milk, the Organic Cow, and Alta Dena. The Hain Celestial Group, with five hundred twenty-four million dollars in sales, owns dozens of organic lines, including Arrowhead Mills, Celestial Seasonings, Hain Pure Foods, Health Valley, and Spectrum Naturals.
Antitrust agencies have been largely ineffective in stopping these amalgamations, which has happened not only in the manufacturing sector, but also in distribution. For example, much of the distribution to health food stores is carried out by United Natural Foods, Inc. (UNFI), a large, publicly traded company. UNFI is the distribution company for all of Whole Foods. Many smaller stores are dependent on the same distributor, but don’t get the same prices as Whole Foods does. But they have no choice. In 1983, there were twenty-nine cooperative-owned distribution companies, twenty-three regional distributors, and one national distributor. Now UNFI dominates.
Four retailers, Walmart, Kroger, Costco and Target control 50 percent of all grocery sales. Walmart has the biggest impact―one out of every three grocery dollars goes to Walmart. Walmart puts pressure on suppliers to cut costs. When Walmart makes a decision to change the way it does business, the entire industry shifts to keep up. The model is “all about sucking money out of the supply chain” and shifting costs and responsibilities to suppliers. Suppliers even have to manage their own inventory on Walmart’s shelves. Contracts with Walmart are non-negotiable. Walmart is the largest purchaser of American agricultural products. The pressure to cut costs has pushed many manufacturers to close facilities in the U.S. and send manufacturing overseas. It has also pushed many food producers, such as Vlasic, into bankruptcy.
This consolidation has greatly affected the growing of crops—forcing amalgamation into large companies to provide a year-round supply. For example Sun World Farms owns over twentythree thousand acres in Australia, Chile, Mexico, and South Africa. California Giant Berry Farms grows and ships over twenty million trays of berries annually from farms in California, Florida, the Pacific Northwest, Mexico, Chile, Argentina and Uruguay.
The same consolidation has taken place in the meat industry. The increased emphasis on HAACP plans, which are expensive to produce and involve lots of paperwork, has led to the demise of many small packing houses and butchers. This industrialized system is responsible for the proliferation of virulent pathogens. When contamination occurs, the larger plants are given a pass and the smaller plants are closed. In just a few years after the new HAACP policy, USDA forced over 40 percent of the smallest plants out of the market.
The growth of the feedlot system has brought many environmental miseries. The U.S. government has failed to take strong action on the use of antibiotics and other drugs in animals. Concentration in the beef industry has relentlessly pushed down prices that ranchers get for their animals.
Cargill, Tyson, JBS and National Beef control 80 percent of all beef processing, and Smithfield, Tyson, JBS and Excel control 66 percent of all hog production. In 1992, 30 percent of all meat came from factory farms. In 2007, that number was 95 percent. The conditions are horrible in poultry processing plants. Cost cutting in processing brings nothing to the farmer. For every KFC twelve-piece chicken bucket sold at about nineteen dollars, only twenty-five cents goes to the grower.
Those who produce chicken are mere contract farmers to the parent company. One trick the industry plays on chicken farmers is to give them a contract that goes the length of their loan, then demand an expensive upgrade before the loan is paid off. Farmers put up precious farmland and houses as collateral to make the expensive changes the industry demands and often end up losing their farms.
Corporate control of the dairy industry is similar, with just four companies controlling 80 percent of the milk sold in the U.S., and corporate control of seeds has come with genetic engineering.
Hauter is sympathetic to the plight of ranchers, and also to raw milk farmers. “FDA wastes resources patrolling for sales of raw milk (or cheese produced from the milk) that consumers buy directly from the producer,” she says, “instead of using resources to deal with the major food safety issues that exist at large, industrial food processing plants.” So it comes as a big surprise when she praises meatless Mondays and a decline in meat consumption as part of the solution to corporate control of the food system! This suggestion plays right into the hands of ADM, Cargill, and other producers of soy-based and grain-based vegetarian food.
Although Hauter recommends shopping locally and building a local food system, she puts her hopes on building the political power to reform the food regulatory systems, even though her whole book catalogs the failure of these efforts. State-level efforts have been more effective than those on the federal level. For example, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (ICCI) and the Missouri Rural Crisis Center (MRCC) have helped local groups fight factory farms, with a certain amount of success. But even on the state level, fighting the food giants is an uphill battle.
WHAT TO DO?
How do we solve this mess? Clearly, attempts to change the opinions of federal officials and regulators are not the solution. As Sinclair Lewis once said: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” People in power have been bought, in ways both obvious and subtle, and they have a hard time understanding that we―all of us―are at the eleventh hour, with a food system so dysfunctional it is poisoning both people and planet.
Fortunately, there are steps each of us can take, and if enough people take these steps, the solution will follow.
1. Eat saturated fat! Yes, the very action that our journalists warn us about is the first action we all need to take to turn things around and return to a sane food system. By choosing saturated animal fat―butter, lard, tallow―we support animal agriculture over monoculture, real food over processed food, health over disease. (Cod liver oil and coconut oil should be added to this list as sister fats.) As we become healthier and stronger, our minds will work better. Vitamin A in animal fats gives us the stick-to-it-tiveness to set a course of action and follow through. That course of action may be as grand as challenging raw milk laws (like Mark McAFee and Vernon Hershberger) or as humble as helping one other person change his or her diet. Surely, we are lost if we don’t eat right, and consuming saturated fats is the first step to having a diet that nourishes body and mind.
2. Buy from local farmers: At least 50 percent of your food budget should be spent on foods produced by farms nearby, farms engaged in pasture-based agriculture. Our chapter leaders can help you find sources of raw milk, eggs, poultry and meat from pastured animals, as well as CSAs for produce, and even co-ops that supply nearly all the food items we need.
3. Learn to cook: Prepare your food from local ingredients, always with plenty of butter. You will find that your cravings for sweets and junk foods will gradually disappear. The more we eat real food and eat that food with plenty of good fats, the less the processed food appeals. And when enough people stop purchasing processed foods, the industry will collapse. Even a slight reduction in demand for processed foods sends shock waves through corporate headquarters.
4. Support artisan producers: One of the most encouraging trends is the proliferation of small companies producing lacto-fermented pickles, kombucha (over one hundred companies nationwide), raw artisan cheese, traditional charcuterie, and sourdough bread. When we buy these products, the companies flourish, and they are truly the healthy alternative to corporate food. None of our three authors seems aware of this promising development; it is beneath their radar screen, and probably unnoticed by food industry executives as well. When the processed food industry implodes, these tiny entities will be waiting in the wings to provide us with healthy processed food.
SOLUTION IN OUR HANDS
Nature has a process for righting things called “natural selection,” and in our society, we are going through a process rightly called the Natural Selection of the Wise. Those who continue to eat processed foods, drink sodas, insist on pasteurized milk, spray their fields with Roundup, and say yes to pharmaceutical drugs and vaccinations, will gradually die out―either they will become infertile or their children will not reach adulthood. Those who choose nutrient-dense pastured farm foods and artisan products will live long, healthy lives and have families of healthy children. Eventually the latter group will displace the former. It may seem cruel but that is how nature works to help her creatures survive. Truly, the solution to our broken food system will come from the bottom up, not the top down.
Of our three authors, only one has faith enough in humanity to describe this kind of grass roots answer to the corporate food challenge― Moss asserts that we will always eat processed food and Hauter does not believe that changing our eating habits is enough to change the broken food system.
But Melanie Warner introduces us to Darcy Struckmeier, wife and mother of four, who took a ten-day challenge to give up all processed food. The family gave up candy, fast food, chips and sodas. Instead of going to fast food restaurants, Darcy prepared real food―meat, eggs, cheese, whole grains, vegetables, fruit―all on a strict food budget of eight hundred dollars a month. On day seven, her borderline autistic thirteenyear- old announced that he felt different, like a fog had been lifted. On day ten, he smiled for the first time in years. Darcy lost weight and her daughter’s digestive problems cleared up―and all this with unprocessed food purchased at the supermarket. Just think of the benefits when the switch to real foods accompanies an effort to get organic and pasture-fed products!
For years, food processors have touted their wares to women who have “no leisure time,” or to give them plenty of leisure time. But more and more women have realized the trap of convenience food―the inconvenience, time-wasting and expensive activities of doctors’ visits, dental work, tutors, psychiatrists and counsellors. “The solution to all of our various health problems brought on by poor eating habits, after all, is in our own hands,” says Warner. “Not those of the mega food companies. While there are clearly policy changes that would make the job of cleaning up our food a whole lot easier. . . the choice about what we feed ourselves and our children is ultimately ours.”
Consumers who choose healthy food often wonder how food industry corporate leaders can live with themselves. Indeed, many industry executives avoid processed food, dine in fine restaurants, garden, cook at home and make yogurt, among other trendy activities; but most truly believe, or persuade themselves to believe, that they are doing a favor for the masses by providing inexpensive foods that at least carry important vitamins and minerals because they are “fortified.”
Says Bob Drane, inventor of Lunchables, “I wish that the nutritional profile of the thing could have been better, but I don’t view the entire project as anything but a positive contribution to people’s lives.” Drane’s upper middle class children don’t let their kids eat Lunchables. “We eat healthy,” his daughter confessed to Michael Moss.
Moss provides many examples of industry executives in denial. In 1972, the McGovern Committee galvanized media attention on food, making the industry squirm over increased consumer awareness about the dangers of sugar and artificial flavors and colors. Al Clause, senior vice president and chief research officer for General Foods complained: “It was coming from the general public, and there are always voices, activist voices, that say this is fact, that sugar causes over-activity. This was one of the folklore [sic]. That and flavors [that] make you eat more of something that otherwise you wouldn’t.” In response, General Mills formed a Flavor Benefits Committee to conduct research that would put food additives in a more favorable light, “by emphasizing their nutritional benefits.”
Howard Moskowitz—the scientist who pioneered the bliss point—had no qualms. “There’s no moral issue for me. I did the best science I could. I was struggling to survive and didn’t have the luxury of being a moral creature.”
Moss provides only one example of an industry executive who left in disgust. Jeffrey Dunn was devoted to the Coca-Cola Company and rose nearly to the top. He achieved peace of mind, he said, by simply not thinking about what he sold. But the moment came in 2001 on a business trip in Brazil. The Brazilian economy was booming and Dunn was charged with targeting young people in poor neighborhoods. It was then that Dunn had a change of heart. He just couldn’t push Coke on poor ghetto kids. After trying to change Coke from the inside, he left four years later. Dunn could not stand the relentless marketing—family man Bill Cosby touting Coke as “the real thing,” ads targeted at Muslims run at night during the Ramadan holiday, pushing Coke to the newly poor in Mexico after the devaluation of the peso, and campaigns targeting the addicted “heavy users,” those who drink three or more Cokes per day.
“The job of marketing,” says Sergio Zyman, chief of marketing at Coke during the 1990s, “is to sell lots of stuff and make lots of money. It is to get people to buy more of your products, more often, at higher prices.” These people have no concept of the fact that human actions have moral consequences.
Pringles provides an iconic example of a successful snack food created by food engineers and flavor chemists, and then promoted with the best marketing savvy money can buy. The potato- and wheat-based stackable snack crisps are sold in one hundred forty countries, generating annual sales in excess of one billion dollars. Procter & Gamble (P&G) introduced the product in 1968 and sold the brand to Kellogg for $2.695 billion in 2012.
P&G wanted to create a “perfect chip” to “address consumer complaints about broken, greasy and stale chips, as well as air in the bags.” The task was assigned to food chemist Fredric Baur, who, from 1956 to 1958, created Pringles’ saddle shape from fried dough, and the can to go with it. But Baur could not figure out how to make the chips taste good; this task was assigned to another P&G researcher, Alexander Liepa, who successfully added flavor.
Pringles have only about 42 percent potato content, the remainder being wheat starch and flours (potato, corn and rice) mixed with vegetable oils, an emulsifier, salt and seasoning. Other ingredients can include sweeteners like maltodextrin and dextrose, monosodium glutamate (MSG), disodium inosinate, disodium guanylate, sodium caseinate, modified food starch, monoglyceride and diglyceride, autolyzed yeast extract, natural and artificial flavors, malted barley flour and wheat bran.
Contrary to a popular misconception, Pringles chips are fried, not baked—thus their content of rancid industrial oil is high.
Pringles are a flavor-maker’s dream; flavor chemists have come up with many flavors besides the original, including salt and vinegar, sour cream and onion, cheddar cheese, ranch dressing, barbecue, and loaded baked potato. Some flavors are distributed only to limited market areas. For example, prawn cocktail, spicy cheese, wasabi, smokey bacon and curry flavors have been available in the United Kingdom.
Occasionally, P&G produces limited edition runs, such as ketchup, zesty lime and chili, chili cheese dog, “pizzalicious,” paprika, Texas BBQ sauce, buffalo wing and cajun. Other limited edition flavors include jalapeño, honey mustard, cheesy fries, onion blossom, mozzarella cheese stick, screamin’ dill pickle and Mexican-layered dip. In 2012, the brand brought out seasonal flavors of peppermint white chocolate, cinnamon sugar and “pumkin pie spice.”
Five new flavors were introduced in Asia: soft-shelled crab, grilled shrimp, seaweed, “blueberry and hazelnut” and “lemon and sesame.” The grilled shrimp chips are pink in color, while seaweed is colored green with artificial colors, of course.
Two limited market flavors, cheeseburger and “Taco Night,” were recalled in March 2010 as a safety precaution after salmonella was found in a Basic Food Flavors plant that produces the flavor-enhancing hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP) used in those flavors. HVP is composed largely of MSG.
Pringles also produces several “multi-grain” varieties, which have some of their base starch ingredients replaced with corn flour, rice, wheat bran, black beans and barley flour—but the rancid fats and other questionable ingredients remain.
The original Pringles television commercials were written, produced and directed by Thomas Scott Cadden (composer of the original Mr. Clean jingle) in 1968, while working at Tatham-Laird and Kudner Advertising Agency in Chicago.
Pringles is advertised in the United States and other English-speaking countries with the slogan “Once you pop, the fun don’t stop” along with the original slogan “Once you pop, you just can’t stop.”
Throughout its history, Pringles used its advertising campaigns to compare their products to conventional potato chips. In its early years, they were marketed as “Newfangled Potato Chips” and had a small silver top to open the can. Unlike the current advertising, they only mentioned how their chips were unbroken as well as their curvy shape, which allows them to be stacked. This trait inspired the slogan, “Other potato chips just don’t stack up.”
By the 1980s, the company launched the “Pringle Jingle,” with the lyrics “Once you taste the flavor (“It’s a deep-fried taste!”), then you get the fever (“With a crispy crunch!”), then you’ve got the fever for the flavor of a Pringle!”
Starting in the 1990s and continuing today, Pringles has advertised their products by comparing them to bagged chips, which they view as greasy and broken. In each ad, a group of people is enjoying Pringles, while another person (alone) is eating a bag of generic potato chips. The solitary person dumps out some broken chips, only to find them greasy, and ends up wiping the grease all over his clothing.
Pringles is especially known for its creative package, a tubular paperboard can with a foil-lined interior and a resealable plastic lid. The cans come in 23, 40, 50, 80, 100, 110, 140, 145, 150, 155, 160, 163, 165, 170, 175, 181, 182, 190 (party size), 200 and 230 gram sizes.
The can was the brainchild of Pringles inventor Fredric J. Baur (1918-2008). When he died, his children honored his request to bury him in one of the cans by placing part of his cremated remains in a Pringles container in his grave.
FAKE FLAVORS FROM SENOMYX
Many large food companies are working with a company called Senomyx, which has developed several chemicals that work by activating or blocking receptors in the mouth that are responsible for taste. They can enhance or replicate the taste of sugar, salt and MSG in foods. By adding one of Senomyx’s flavorings to their products, manufacturers can reduce the sugar in a cookie or salt in a can of soup by one-third to one-half while retaining the same sweetness or saltiness.
Unlike artificial sweeteners or salt substitutes, Senomyx’s chemical compounds will not be listed separately on ingredient labels. Instead, they will be lumped into a broad category—”artificial flavors”—already found on most packaged food labels. “We’re helping companies clean up their labels,” said Senomyx’s chief executive, Kent Snyder.
Senomyx, based in San Diego, uses many of the same research techniques that biotechnology companies apply in devising new drugs. Executives say that a taste receptor or family of receptors on the tongue or in the mouth are responsible for recognizing a taste. Using the human genome sequence, the company has identified hundreds of those taste receptors. Its chemical compounds activate the receptors in a way that accentuates the taste of sugar or salt.
Senomyx’s salt enhancer, in particular, has the potential to be a boon to the food industry. For years, corporate scientists have been looking in vain for ways to reduce sodium levels in packaged food without losing flavor.
Senomyx maintains that its new products are safe because they will be used in tiny quantities. But what happens when, for example, an individual who eats products containing Senomyx salt enhancer ends up not getting enough salt? Either that person will continue eating until his salt requirements are met (and gain a lot of weight in the process) or suffer the consequences of salt deprivation. And we have no way of knowing about unknown neurological consequences of tricking the taste buds.
CSPI has filed a lawsuit seeking to force the FDA to regulate salt as a food additive. The effort, if successful, could be a boon to the Senomyx salt substitute. Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, endorsed Senomyx’s ability to reduce salt, sugar and MSG, but cautioned against a new chemical entering the food supply without rigorous testing. “A three-month study is completely inadequate,” he said. “What you want is at least a two-year study on several species of animals.”
GETTING IT WRONG ABOUT SALT
Morton Satin, Vice President, Science and Research, Salt Institute
Michael Moss’s new book, Salt, Sugar, Fat: How Food Giants Hooked Us, employs innuendo to make his case that the food industry is killing us with salt. As an example, he describes manufacturers as “dumping sack after sack” of salt into their products. What does this actually mean? When homemakers add salt to the family beef stew, they use a teaspoon to measure the amount. When a commercial-scale food producer puts together a batch of a few tons of beef stew, at the same level of salt as the homemade product, does Moss expect the same teaspoon to be used to add it? His intention is to convey the idea that higher levels of salt are used, but he has no evidence to back up this claim, so he resorts to exaggeration and innuendo instead. This is not an example of how language is used to inform a reader, but instead a lesson on how to distort a reader’s view.
To make a factual case that modern processed foods contain more salt than the traditional foods we have been making and eating for centuries, he would have to plead total ignorance of the corned beef, sausages, cheeses, bacon, sauerkraut, pickles, potted beef, ham, salt cod, smoked fish, caviar, capers, anchovies, and many other foods that have kept our growing population vigorous and prolific for centuries. In fact, virtually every product that we consider a traditional gourmet food falls into the higher-salt category. If there are readers and consumers out there who pine for the “good old days,” so should the salt industry!
Moss’s section on salt starts by glossing over and then side-stepping a basic fact: we eat less salt now than ever before in recorded history. While he makes a quick reference to the consumption of salted fish in the sixteenth century, he avoids the fact that from the beginning of civilization, salt was the principal means of preserving food.
There are almost no historical records of our salt consumption levels with the exception of military archives for soldiers and prisoner-of-war rations. These records, going as far back as the War of 1812, are uncannily consistent for almost one hundred forty years, until the end of World War II. They indicate that our consumption of salt ranged between 18-20 grams per day (over three to four teaspoons), about double the amount that we currently consume.1,2,3
However, in the United States during the ten years following World War II, the consumption of salt dropped in half because refrigeration replaced salt as the main means of food preservation. The same phenomenon occurred in all other countries at a somewhat later date, as the use of refrigeration spread. This drop in salt consumption occurred without any government anti-salt campaigns, without consumer advocacy groups and without any urging by our public health institutions. Consumers simply gravitated towards a fresher food supply. Yet Moss maintains that the salt level in modern processed foods is higher than in traditionally preserved foods.
As an “investigative” journalist, Moss appears to be remarkably selective in what he chooses to investigate and who he appears to trust implicitly. The most obvious sector of the consumers’ universe that seems to get a total pass by Moss is the “establishment”—the government and its public health agencies. He appears to believe that government bureaucrats have no private agendas, no personal ambitions and nothing more than the desire to honestly devote their lives to the interest of consumers. As a result, he dodges all the peer-reviewed published evidence that counters the establishment’s recommended salt intakes and accepts them at face value, without exception. In fact, a comprehensive investigation of the politics and manipulation of those recommendations would make a far more lurid and sensational tale than the one told in Salt, Sugar, Fat.
Moss says surprisingly little about the issue of salt and health. His reference to the experience of salt reduction in Finland reflects where his mind is when communicating to consumers. He writes in depth of the personalities who claim a great public health success for Finland due to a government salt reduction campaign from 1970-2000, but Moss never for a moment questions those claims. Instead he talks of the guilt and mortification of a food industry executive who also believed these claims without ever questioning them. It is really quite amazing what a tale can be spun without ever questioning the factual basis of an event.
In fact, the Finland claims are totally bogus. As indicated earlier, in all Western countries, the level of salt intake dropped dramatically after World War II because refrigeration replaced salt as the main means of food preservation. This occurred a bit later in countries such as Finland because of their stronger adherence to traditional salt-cured foods. Although the authors of the Finnish paper4 attribute the reduction in salt intake to an active government campaign to reduce salt, the official FinnDiet survey data5 indicate a significant increase in fresh vegetable consumption during the same time period, making refrigeration and the cold chain the more likely reason for this dietary shift from high levels of salt. Even more important, the authors appear to believe that the improvement in cardiovascular status was unique to the Finns during the period of 1970- 2000. In fact, an analysis using the data of the WHO Cardiovascular Infobase demonstrates that all countries in Europe as well as in the USA and Canada had an improvement in cardiovascular status during the very same time.6 In fact, of all these countries, Finland had the smallest record of improvement. The reason for this improvement in cardiovascular performance in all countries, as repeatedly stated by the World Health Organization, was the reduction in the use of tobacco. Yet, Moss never questions the Finland claims and allows the myth of salt reduction benefits to continue.
In December 2012, Professor Ronald Bayer, Director of the Center for the History and Ethics of Public Health at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, together with David M. Jones and Sandro Galea, published a paper in the journal Health Affairs entitled, “Salt and Public Health: Contested Science and the Challenge of Evidence-Based Decision Making.”7 Their article explored the development of the salt-health controversy and concluded that the establishment’s “concealment” of the scientific uncertainty of the benefits of their salt recommendations was “a mistake that has served neither the ends of science nor good policy.” If the establishment’s recommendations do not serve the ends of good science or policy, then its recommendations will likely ill-serve the public. Yet Moss, an investigative journalist, appears to believe everything the establishment says without question and bases his entire premise on its recommendations. His latest work does not serve the interests of the consuming public well.
1. Rations: The History of Rations, Conference Notes, Prepared by The Quartermaster School for the Quartermaster General,
January 1949, accessed at http://www.qmfound.com/history_of_rations.htm on 3/20/2013.
2. American Prisoners of War in Germany, Prepared by Military Intelligence Service War Department, November 1945, Restricted
Classification Removed-STALAG 17B (Air Force Non-Commissioned Officers) accessed at http://www.valerosos.com/AMERICANPRISONERSOFWAR.pdf on 3/20/2013.
3. Satin, M., Salt and our Health, Exposing Mainstream Myths, accessed at http://www.westonaprice.org/vitamins-and-minerals/salt-and-our-health on 3/20/2013.
4. Karppanen H. and Mervaala E. Sodium Intake and Hypertension. Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases, 2006; 49(2):59-75.
5. Prättälä R. Dietary changes in Finland—success stories and future challenges. Appetite. 2003; 41:245–249.
6. Satin M. Health Outcomes Lessons from Finland’s Salt Reduction. Salt and Health Newsletter. 2007;2. Accessed at http://www.saltinstitute.org/content/download/259/1487/file/s-h-summer2007.pdf on 3/20/2013.
7. Health Aff (Millwood). 2012 Dec;31(12):2738-46.
BOOK REVIEW SUMMARY
Salt, Sugar, Fat by Michael Moss: Moss gets us nodding in agreement over the dangers of sugar, all the better to lure us
into accepting his assertions that saturated fat and salt are evils to be avoided. THUMBS DOWN.
Pandora’s Lunchbox by Melanie Warner: An excellent exposé of the food industry’s secrets and tricks, ending with an
inspiring appeal to turn away from junk food and learn to enjoy real food. THUMBS UP.
Foodopoly by Wenonah Hauter: Although flawed by suggestions to avoid meat and consume a plant-based diet, Hauter’s
book provides a revealing look at corporate food and the government policies that protect the foodopoly. THUMBS UP.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2013.