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Food Industry Meeting Could've Curbed the Rise of Sugar, Salt and Fat in Foods

By Wesley Fenlon

Reporter Michael Moss, author of "Sugar Salt Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us," begins his book with the inside story of a failed 1999 food CEO meeting that could have enforced limitations on unhealthy food ingredients.

We should've known, back in 1999, that Go-Gurt was emblematic of all that was evil in the food industry. Go-Gurt wasn't just a sugary snack designed for kids, not just another dessert to go along with cookies and Little Debbies and Reese's for breakfast. It was a sugary snack using the good name of yogurt, a food with an unblemished reputation for healthiness. And it came in a tube.

Go-Gurt is notable for hitting the market in early 1999, and for coming from General Mills, one of America's biggest processed food companies. Shortly after Go-Gurt ads hit the airwaves, the CEOs of food companies including General Mills, Pillsbury, Kraft, Nabisco, and Coca Cola met to talk about America's growing obesity problem. Some of them wanted to fit it, to cut back on the use of sugar, salt and fat that made some of their foods deliciously addictive and also incredibly unhealthy.

Photo Credit: Flickr user nebarnix via Creative Commons

Over a decade later, America's only grown fatter. The meeting didn't work, and now we're learning why. This meeting serves as a staging point for a recent New York Times article called The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food. Reporter Michael Moss begins with the meeting, writing that General Mills CEO Stephen Sanger listened to a presentation from Kraft's CEO urging them to consider industry-wide regulations on how much sugar, salt and fat they allowed in their products, and then responded himself:

"To react to the critics, Sanger said, would jeopardize the sanctity of the recipes that had made his products so successful. General Mills would not pull back. He would push his people onward, and he urged his peers to do the same. Sanger’s response effectively ended the meeting."

Moss' article on the New York Times, in-depth as it is, is still only part of the story. He's actually written an entire book on the subject, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, that deals with the horrible foods we eat and the horrible marketing that compels us to eat them. The book was released on February 26 and is available in a Kindle edition on Amazon. If the New York Times article or quotes like these excerpts from NPR leave you wanting to know more, thinking about picking it up:

"They made for me special versions of some of their most iconic products ... without any salt in it to show me why they were having trouble cutting back. And, I have to say, it was a god-awful experience. ... starting with Cheez-Its, which normally I could eat all day long. The Cheez-Its without salt stuck to the roof of my mouth and I could barely swallow. Then we moved onto frozen waffles, which tasted like straw. The real moment came in tasting a cereal — I think it was Corn Flakes — which tasted hugely, awfully metallic. It was almost like a filling had come out of my mouth and it was sloshing around."

"The Cheez-Its without salt stuck to the roof of my mouth and I could barely swallow."

"The clientele were kids — teenagers — who were going out on their own for the first time with a little bit of change into an environment where they could make the decision about what to buy and, for $1 or $2, they could go in there and choose a soda or a snack and decide between brands. And this was critical to Coke, as it is to other companies, because those decisions early on, especially in the teen years, will develop brand loyalties. So a child that chooses Pepsi at age 13 or 14 is likely to maintain that brand loyalty through the rest of their life."

If Moss' book has a strong impact, perhaps it will lead to another meeting like the failed CEO gathering of 1999. Ultimately, though, it seems like only government regulation will have any hope of improving the general quality of food; there are simply too many companies, with too many self interests, to hope for dramatic change from within.