I am grateful I grew up when I did, just prior to WWII, with an Italian immigrant for a father. He simply refused to allow most “American” foods to cross our threshold. We never had ready-to-eat cereals like Wheaties or Corn Flakes (both the epitome of health by today’s standards), nor sliced white bread, nor any processed foods, or even those that came in cans (with the possible exception of canned peas, used for a low-cost and not very enticing dish called ‘peas and pasta’.) We ate pasta a lot—we called it spaghetti or macaroni in those days—with various kinds of sauces. We ate meat sparingly, and usually cuts that today are found only in specialty shops: kidneys, liver, tripe. We ate chicken bought fresh from a chicken shop that had them live in wooden cages, and stew meats in nutritious stews my mother made from fresh ingredients. And we regularly ate fish, including calamari, smelt, shiners (now known as ‘white bait’ and used mainly by fishermen to catch larger varieties) and various kinds of shellfish. My father called fish “brain food,” and he was right. We also ate real (i.e. aged) cheeses, the most memorable being a type of provolone that had actual milk worms oozing from its flesh, and which my father attributed to its being “real” and alive—which was accurate, though it was banned by a squeamish FDA long ago. With five children there was never quite enough food, so we grew up hungry but healthy. And we always ate together as a family.
Not so today’s kids, especially those who live in urban “food deserts” which, abandoned by supermarkets, survive on “convenience stores” purveying mostly snack foods and sodas and junk like Hot Pockets and Lunchables loaded with the Salt, Sugar and Fat that gives Michael Moss’s book its name. I mourn for these kids, whose parents have to thread their way through the American food minefield in hopes of finding real, nutritious foods. Mostly, though, they are barraged with TV ads touting the latest chemical concoction that food companies have spawned to make more profits, and to habituate their future customers, the children, to addictive substances like salt (leading to high blood pressure and strokes), sugar (leading to obesity and diabetes and swollen hospital rolls) and fat (leading to clogged arteries and heart attacks). Mostly, they are fed on “convenience” foods that can be popped into the microwave and eaten on the run. Mostly, they are left to their own devices when it comes to foods, and that means, as I noticed recently when I was getting gas at a Chevron station with a “Food Mart,” Hispanic high-schoolers lined up several deep, their hands bursting not with books but with huge sodas to wash down plastic packs of potato or corn chips or ready-to-eat junk like Hot Pockets. These “snacks” (called “crack snacks” in a Philadelphia neighborhood that has been trying to boycott the ubiquitous convenience stores strategically located near schools) are time bombs, condemning several generations to the misery of hospital care before their time. And the food industry knows it, the USDA and the FDA and the FTC know it, the Congress knows it, and yet it goes on, greased by the money that these huge food corporations like General Foods and Nestlè and Cargill donate to the “people’s” representatives who are supposed to be giving voice to the voiceless.
Moss’s book tells this whole story by dividing it into three sections: one for sugar, one for fat, and one for salt. It’s enough to make you sick. Though it’s far too detailed to do justice to, a few segments will give you the flavor. Consider, first, a core idea: that these “foods” (in quotes because many people have observed that they are not “real” foods, having been processed to the extent that they resemble, and taste like—without their sugar, fat, and salt disguises—cardboard or plastic) are addictive in the same way that drugs or alcohol are. Take sugar. Kids naturally prefer sugar and reject bitter more than adults; but they are also being taught—by what they eat and what they see on TV—that all food is supposed to be sweet. What’s worse, testing at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia has shown that sugar is an analgesic like aspirin that will “reduce crying in a newborn baby.” So children not only prefer sweet, many of them are medicating themselves with sugar, which food companies know and therefore add to everything. Karen Teff, a food scientist who has found that sweet liquids (the kind in most processed foods) can circumvent the body’s natural controls, sums it up this way:
“I’m still shocked at what goes on in this country. Where every single food has some sweetened component that wasn’t normally supposed to be sweetened. Honey wheat bread, honey mustard. Foods that were associated with non-sweet or that had slightly bitter components have now been made sweeter. There is absolutely no tolerance now for foods that are not sweet” (Moss, p. 21)
But what food companies have been doing for years is investing millions in research to find what is called the “bliss point” for their products—the optimum point at which the brain’s pleasure centers are rewarded. Nor is this simply research into appetite or taste buds; it also investigates the emotional component in responses to food. One of the primary food researchers and consultants, Howard Moskowitz, for example, did research on craving. He found that hunger is a poor driver of cravings, and that we are driven to eat by other forces like emotional needs, and then taste, aroma, appearance and texture; and that one ingredient, sugar, can satisfy them all. Food companies have known this for a long time, and as early as 1949 came out with Sugar Frosted Flakes—a sugar coated “cereal” that was so successful that the Post company followed with Sugar Krisps, Krinkles, Corn-fetti and a host of others that kids went nuts over. Other food companies followed suit so that today, the cereal aisle in supermarkets has more varieties (over 200) than any other. More alarming, when sugar added to dog chow was found to prevent bacteria from forming, sugar became a major way to preserve processed foods (and Gaines Burgers for dogs, also afflicted with obesity), allowing them to sit on the shelf almost indefinitely.
None of this sugar mania went without criticism. In 1969, Dr. Jean Mayer of Harvard and an advisor to President Nixon, organized a White House Conference of Food Nutrition and Health. His pioneering research on obesity, which he called a “disease of civilization,” led to the discovery of how the desire to eat is controlled by the amount of glucose in the blood and brain, greatly influenced by sugar in food. Mayer contended that “cereals containing over 50% sugar should be labeled imitation cereal or cereal confections” and should be sold in the candy section. This scared the food industry to death, but as usual, the changes it made were mostly cosmetic. Kellogg’s said it could live with the designation “breakfast foods” instead of cereal, while Post changed the name of its iconic Sugar Frosted Flakes to “Frosted Flakes.” But more alarming news was to come with President Carter’s appointee to head the FTC, Michael Pertschuk. Pertschuk recommended a ban on all advertising to children. But with $600 million in annual revenues at stake for media companies (food manufacturers were spending twice as much advertising their cereals as on the ingredients that went into them!), the lobbyists struck back. They got the Washington Post in an editorial to ridicule Pertschuk as “the national Nanny,” and blamed the FTC for trying to “protect children from the weakness of their parents” (this is hauntingly like a current TV message, which insists that government has no business advising kids what to eat, which is the job of parents; it’s also reminiscent of the furor that broke over New York City’s Mayor Bloomberg trying to limit the size of sugared drinks.) The lobbying worked: Pertschuk was ousted as FTC chairman, and the new head said “we’re not going to engage in social engineering.” As if protecting the health of children were some kind of Commie plot. As if 20,000 commercials a year watched by children between the ages of two and eleven, more than half of them pitching sweetened cereals, candies, snacks, and soft drinks four times every half hour, were some kind of sacred corporate right to be protected. As if these devils—in 2008, the cereal industry began touting sugar as a kind of brain food that increased attentiveness: “a clinical study showed kids who had a filling breakfast of Frosted Mini-Wheats cereal improved their attentiveness by nearly 20 percent”—deserved to be protected in order to hook children on what has become a drug (Coke executives spoke, around 1995, of their “heavy users,” meaning those who drank two or more cans a day; even average Americans were drinking 40 gallons of sugared soda, on average, each year, for 60,000 calories and 3,700 teaspoons of sugar each). As if the food execs weren’t still scheming night and day and funding scientific studies to tell them how to get even more soda and sweet drinks like Kool Aid—with no nutritional value at all—into its already addicted consumers!
I tell you, this stuff gets me so enraged I can hardly write about it.
So perhaps I should just end with Lunchables—trayed bologna and cheese and crackers put together on an assembly line for a kid’s instant lunch; ramped up a year later to become the Fun Pack that added a Snickers bar, and a sugary drink. Or Hot Pockets (see below). Or Oreos—now being marketed in India to teach millions of Indian kids the “Twist, Lick and Dunk” ritual; just imagine a billion Indians hooked on Oreos! Or pink slime. Yes. pink slime has been in the news fairly recently, and Michael Moss was the journalist who broke the story, so it’s appropriate. The stuff was invented, ironically, because of the public demand for leaner cuts of beef to reduce those dangerous saturated fats. The problem is that leaner cuts are tough without the fat, so the industry sought technological solutions as usual: tenderize these course cuts either by piercing the meat with steel needles; or by taking beef scraps that used to be used for pet food and putting them through a high-speed centrifuge to spin off all but 10 percent of the fat. This latter process leaves a mush that is then formed into 30-pound blocks, frozen, and shipped to meat plants where it’s combined with other beef trimmings to make hamburger. Great. It’s cheap after all; cheaper than lean meat from South America; so cheap that even the USDA used it for school lunch programs for poor kids.
Enter Beef Products, Inc. of South Dakota. Given that the “defatted” material in the meat blocks derived from parts of the cow carcass most exposed to feces (you can imagine where those parts are)—which harbor the bacteria E. Coli that can cause stomach poisoning—Beef Products figured something had to be done to kill those feces pathogens that sometimes got smeared (ugh!) on the meat. So they fumigated the meat with ammonia, whose smell sometimes lingered on the “hamburger” sold to places like McDonald’s. Not good. Besides the smell, though, there arose the question of whether this “meat” should even be called “meat;” as USDA microbiologist Gerald Zirnstein noted: “I do not consider the stuff to be ground beef, and consider allowing it in ground beef to be a form of fraudulent labeling” (228). Zirnstein gave it the name “pink slime,” and Michael Moss published his story on pink slime in 2009. The response, of course, was rapid: McDonald’s, sensing a public relations disaster, discontinued using it. Yet even with all the bad publicity, the USDA and Barack Obama’s Agriculture Secretary, Tom Vilsack, were undaunted. In March 2012 Vilsack continued to promote the low-fat benefits of pink slime:
“That’s one of the reasons we have made it a staple of the school lunch program. We are concerned about obesity levels, and this is an opportunity for us to ensure that youngsters are receiving a product that is lean and contains less fat” (229).
This gets to what is the heart of the matter for me. The food that increasing numbers of Americans rely on (Frito Lay early on saw baby boomers as a growth industry because of their lifestyle habits: having “abandoned the traditional concept of breakfast, lunch and dinner…they replaced them with convenient snacks—pulled from cupboards, convenience stores, or the office vending machine”) is less and less derived from the farm, and more and more from the factory. It is “processed food,” and it is invented in huge laboratories (Nestle, the world’s largest food company, has a research center employing 700, including 350 “scientists”) that all large food companies now use to invent new ways to deliver machine-created food necessarily drowning in sugar, fat and salt to disguise the horrid taste it would otherwise have (one of these bad tastes is WOF, “warmed-over flavor,” the wet-dog-hair taste of meat that has to be heated again, after first being cooked). And to make it last virtually forever. Machines were first used to make comparatively benign cereals like Kellogg’s Corn Flakes. Today, they are used to make Doritos 3D, a puffy spherical version of the flat potato chip that increases the ‘surprise factor,’ which is said to be “good for consumption.” Or to fabricate Cheetos, an almost perfect food (for profit) that gives no signal to the brain about its high calories or fat, and so induces unlimited craving. Or to create Hot Pockets, whose 8-ounce Pepperoni and 3-Cheese Calzone (Americans now get most of their saturated fat from “cheese”, which is of course not real cheese with beneficial bacteria in it, but “imitation cheddar” and “imitation mozzarella” made with machine-fractured “milk protein concentrate”) delivers 10 grams of saturated fat and 1,500 milligrams of sodium, both close to the recommended daily limits. In addition, this Hot Pocket delivers 6 teaspoons of sugar (nearly as much as a can of Coke!) and enough chemical preservatives among its more than 100 ingredients to keep it on the shelf for 420 days, at least.
Does such “food” have anything to do with real food? Even Nestlè knows what a disaster it is. Because although it claims that Hot Pockets “meet the needs of millenials,” Nestlè has also bought Novartis, a company that specializes in gastric surgery. You know what this is: gastric bypass surgery literally closes off a portion of the stomach for those who can’t seem to lose the weight they know is killing them. The trouble with gastric surgery, though, is that it doesn’t always work, and never works to reduce the craving for food. Indeed, some people keep eating to the degree that they burst the surgical bands the surgery has implanted, and require care in emergency rooms. Regrettable. But Nestlè, like a good profit-craving corporation, has found opportunity in this as well. It has begun to market yet another line of foods, liquid foods like Peptamen, or Optifat, that are ingested through a tube, so gastric surgery patients can cope more easily with their smaller stomachs.
As Moss comments: this leads us to the image of “teenagers gorging on Hot Pockets, only to end up drinking Peptamen through a tube for the rest of their lives” (337). But Nestlè? Not to worry; it’s covered no matter what.
There’s much more to this rich, disturbing book, and I would urge anyone with an interest in food, or children, or the perils of corporate capitalism to read it. It will disturb you, enrage you (not least because of the collusion Moss documents between the U.S. Government and Big Food that has allowed the corporate criminality involved in processed food to continue and expand for a half-century and more), and enlighten you. My hope is that it will also ignite a fire that will force the government, finally, to regulate American food production and stop the perversion of America’s eating habits that are now threatening to engulf the entire planet.
Before that happens though, the American people have to wake up to what everyone is born knowing: real food is a gift of the earth. It does not come out of a tube, or a soda can, or a plastic container, or a machine.