Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Michael Moss: Salt, Sugar, Fat

New York Times reporter Michael Moss's book released this year is Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us.

The book has some older themes and some newer distinctive contributions.  The basic indictment of highly palatable processed food is familiar to readers of Michael Pollan, Marion Nestle, Eric Schlosser, and David Kessler, and to viewers of movies such as Supersize Me and Food, Inc.  The novelty and strength of Moss's new book is the persuasive on-the-record interviews with food industry executives and scientists as they try to understand the consequences of their products and even to make improvements.

I ended up with two competing impressions.  First, I felt sympathetic to the industry scientists and executives, several of whom really would have preferred to sell better products, but who were defeated by competitive pressures.  Second, it seemed that the industry people themselves are usually naive about the possibility of making substantial improvements on a company-by-company voluntary basis.  I say "usually" naive, because I think deep down they know their efforts are partly for show, and at key junctures the industry scientists and executives are forced to be blunt about the real situation.

I have seen this pattern in my own conversations with food industry scientists and executives.  In nine sentences out of ten, they will express great optimism that their company can make healthy changes in its product mix.  Then, in the tenth sentence, especially if pressed with a hard question about whether the proposed changes are sufficiently ambitious to make a real difference, they will say, "Oh, well, don't be unrealistic.  You can't expect THAT from us in the real world of competition."

An article-length version of the book was published in the New York Times Magazine.  The Grocery Manufacturers Association released a statement treating Moss's book as an "obesity book" with an unfair axe to grind: "Michael Moss’s work misrepresents the strong commitment America’s food and beverage companies have to providing consumers with the products, tools and information they need to achieve and maintain a healthy diet and active lifestyle."  But this statement misses a key theme of Moss's book, which focuses above all on the quixotic efforts of industry scientists and executives to make improvements.

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