“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.”
I spotted this article last week in the New York Times Magazine and told myself to make time to read it. So glad I did. I finished the piece (an excerpt from this book added to my GoodReads list) furious. We all know junk food is bad for us. What Michael Moss, investigative reporter for the Times, discovers is just how we—as a nation—have been duped by companies engineering our ADDICTION to the stuff. From soda to potato chips, it’s not your fault you can’t stop at just one sip or one crunch. They’ve spent billions of dollars creating it that way.
Moss talks to more than 300 people in or formerly employed by the processed-food industry, including scientists, marketers and food engineers. Of course I was aware of how manipulative this industry is. I just didn’t know the extent to which nearly everything on the grocery shelf has been designed — thanks to salt, sugar and fat — to get us hooked.
In a section about Prego spaghetti sauce — a sauce we’ve bought hundreds of times, falling for its “Heart Healthy” labeling and convenience factor — Moss writes: Many of the Prego sauces — whether cheesy, chunky or light — have one feature in common: The largest ingredient, after tomatoes, is sugar. A mere half-cup of Prego Traditional, for instance, has the equivalent of more than two teaspoons of sugar, as much as two-plus Oreo cookies. It also delivers one-third of the sodium recommended for a majority of American adults for an entire day.
So I guess I’ve been eating the equivalent of half a row of Oreos every time I make spaghetti at home. Are you serious?! (But, as Moss points out in this Amazon interview, reading nutrition labels is no longer easy. So I’m not the only one!)
Reading this article reminds me I can do better. I can start making my own pasta sauce (thanks Annie for the recipe!). Same with salad dressings (vinaigrettes are easy to whip up, so why do I keep buying the stuff in the bottle?). And surely my lunch time sandwich can go without a side of potato chips (which are, in Moss’ words, engineered to be “the perfect addictive food”.)
I wonder if and when our nation’s relationship with food might change. Will government regulation wind up playing a role the way it did with Big Tobacco? Will our grandkids look back 50 years from now at the way our society ingests Big Gulps like water and cringe to the extent we look back at the ’50s and ’60s love affair with cigarettes? Gosh, I hope so.
In the meantime, it’s journalism like this that reminds me of the small changes I can take to make a difference. To watch out for those health claims in the grocery store aisles. And in the words of Michael Pollen, if you can’t say it, don’t eat it.
Photo credit: Grant Cornett for the New York Times