The Quiet Way Food Companies Get You to Eat Junk

December 22nd 2015

Laura Donovan

Food companies are partially to blame for America's obesity crisis, according to Michael Moss, a New York Times investigative journalist and the author of "Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us." 

The sweetening of America's foods.

Speaking to NPR's "Here & Now" series, Moss said that while "there are things like exercise and personal responsibility" causing weight gain in the U.S., food companies also have a role in obesity by sweetening foods that aren't typically associated with sweetness. Breads, for example, can contain sweeteners and fat, and yogurt is often loaded with sugar. Moss said that this can make us expect everything to be sweet because so many of our foods have become sweeter.

"The food companies have marched around the grocery store adding sweetness, engineering bliss points to products that didn't used to be sweet," Moss said. "So now bread has added sugar and a bliss point for sweetness. Yogurt can be as sweet as ice cream for some brands. And pasta sauce — my gosh, there are some brands with the equivalent of sugar from a couple of Oreo cookies in one half-cup serving."

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The impact on kids.

This, of course, impacts kids as well as adults, perhaps even more so because children can be picky eaters. When it comes time for these little ones to consume their much-needed vegetables, they may put up a fight because they're used to everything being sweet, Moss said.

"And what this does, nutritionists say, is create this expectation in us that everything should be sweet," Moss continued. "And this is especially difficult for kids who are hard-wired to the sweet taste. So when you drag their little butts over to the produce aisle and try to get them to eat some of that stuff we all should be eating more of — Brussels sprouts and broccoli, which have some of the other basic tastes like sour and bitter — you get a rebellion on your hands."

Moss added that many of us also fall victim to "mindless eating," which can be defined as "eating food without paying adequate attention to what and how much is being eaten." He said that slurping down the product Go-Gurt can be a perfect example of mindless eating because it is a "handheld, cloying sweet yogurt that you could eat with one hand while doing something else."


How food is advertized.

When asked about food advertising on TV, Moss said that all of the advertising goes to the "90 percent of the grocery store that concerns itself with processed food," and that there's almost no time spent advertising produce. Moss added that he was struck when he spoke with former Coca Cola president Jeffrey Dunn, who said that the company had an "incredible cunning targeting of kids at corner stores."

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"[They knew that] when kids walk into those stores with a little bit of their own spending money for the first time, and they make a purchase decision, they will become brand loyal," Moss said.

The cost of obesity.

Earlier this year, public policy nonprofit the Brookings Institute and the World Food Center of the University of California-Davis found that the societal cost of obesity could exceed $1.1 trillion. Considering the 12.7 million obese children in America and studying data on obesity, researchers found that the individual cost is nearly $100,000 per obese adult, with the lifetime costs going beyond $1.1 trillion if these children stay obese in adulthood.

At the time of these findings, University of California, Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi weighed in on obesity's negative impact on social mobility and different communities.

"[Obesity creates a] lack of health, low economy in the quality of the schools, the quality of education that the students receive, and eventually their ability to move socially upwards, which is something we as an institution have tried to achieve," she said.

First Lady Michelle Obama has made headlines in recent years for her Let's Move! campaign, which aims to fight obesity and promote healthy dietary and lifestyle habits among youths. She also championed the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010 to provide healthy options in School Breakfast Programs (SBPs), which are federally subsidized breakfasts for low-income children. During the spring, ATTN: reported on research that found children who participate in free breakfast programs perform better in science, math, and reading than kids who don't participate in the program.

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