Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us
Author:Moss, Michael

Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us

Moss, Michael


“The Company Jewels”

Minneapolis was having a blustery spring evening on April 8, 1999, when a long line of town cars and taxis pulled up to the office complex on South 6th Street and discharged their well-dressed passengers. These eleven men were the heads of America’s largest food companies. Among them, they controlled seven hundred thousand employees and $280 billion in annual sales. And even before their sumptuous dinner was served, they would be charting a course for their industry for years to come.

There would be no reporters at this gathering. No minutes taken, no recordings made. Rivals any other day, the CEOs and company presidents had come together for a meeting that was as secretive as it was rare. On the agenda was one item: the emerging epidemic of obesity and how to deal with it.

Pillsbury was playing host at its corporate headquarters, two glass and steel towers perched on the eastern edge of downtown. The largest falls on the Mississippi River rumbled a few blocks away, near the historic brick and iron-roller mills that, generations before, had made this city the flour-grinding capital of the world. A noisy midwestern wind gusting to 45 miles an hour buffeted the towers as the executives boarded the elevators and made their way to the thirty-first floor.

A top official at Pillsbury, fifty-five-year-old James Behnke, greeted the men as they walked in. He was anxious but also confident about the plan that he and a few other food company executives had devised to engage the CEOs on America’s growing weight problem. “We were very concerned, and rightfully so, that obesity was becoming a major issue,” Behnke recalled. “People were starting to talk about sugar taxes, and there was a lot of pressure on food companies.” As the executives took their seats, Behnke particularly worried about how they would respond to the evening’s most delicate matter: the notion that they and their companies had played a central role in creating this health crisis. Getting the company chiefs in the same room to talk about anything, much less a sensitive issue like this, was a tricky business, so Behnke and his fellow organizers had scripted the meeting carefully, crafting a seating chart and honing the message to its barest essentials. “CEOs in the food industry are typically not technical guys, and they’re uncomfortable going to meetings where technical people talk in technical terms about technical things,” Behnke said. “They don’t want to be embarrassed. They don’t want to make commitments. They want to maintain their aloofness and autonomy.”

Nestlé was in attendance, as were Kraft and Nabisco, General Mills and Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola and Mars. The companies present were the dominant players in processed industrial food, fiercely aggressive competitors who, when not gathering in secret, were looking to bludgeon one another in the grocery store.

Just that year, the head of General Mills had muscled his company past Kellogg to become the country’s largest cereal maker, hooking shoppers with a dazzling lineup of new products and flavors, sold at reduced prices to boost sales all the more. General Mills was dominating in the dairy aisle as well, showing the rest of the industry just how easy it was to influence America’s eating habits. The company’s Yoplait brand had already transformed traditional unsweetened breakfast yogurt into a dessert-like snack. It now had twice as much sugar per serving as Lucky Charms, the company’s cloyingly sweet, marshmallow-filled cereal. And yet, because of yogurt’s well-tended image as a wholesome, life-giving snack, sales of Yoplait were soaring, with annual revenue topping $500 million. Emboldened by the success, General Mills’ development wing pushed even harder, inventing a yogurt that came in a squeezable tube—perfect for kids—eliminating the need for a spoon. They called it Go-Gurt, and rolled it out nationally in the weeks before the CEO meeting. (By year’s end, it would hit $100 million in sales.)

So while the atmosphere at the meeting was cordial, the CEOs were hardly friends. Their stature was defined by their skill in fighting each other for what they called “stomach share,” or the amount of digestive space that any one company’s brand can grab from the competition. If they eyed one another suspiciously that evening, it was for good reason. By 2001, Pillsbury’s chief would be gone and the 127-year-old company—with its cookies, biscuits, and toaster strudel—would be acquired by General Mills.

Two of the men at the meeting rose above the fray. They were here to represent the industry titans, Cargill and Tate & Lyle, whose role it was to supply the CEOs with the ingredients they relied on to win. These were no run-of-the-mill ingredients, either. These were the three pillars of processed food, the creators of crave, and each of the CEOs needed them in huge quantities to turn their products into hits. These were also the ingredients that, more than any other, were directly responsible for the obesity epidemic. Together, the two suppliers had the salt, which was processed in dozens of ways to maximize the jolt that taste buds would feel with the very first bite; they had the fats, which delivered the biggest loads of calories and worked more subtly in inducing people to overeat; and they had the sugar, whose raw power in exciting the brain made it perhaps the most formidable ingredient of all, dictating the formulations of products from one side of the grocery store to the other.

James Behnke was all too familiar with the power of salt, sugar, and fat, having spent twenty-six years at Pillsbury under six chief executive officers. A chemist by training with a doctoral degree in food science, he became the company’s chief technical officer in 1979 and was instrumental in creating a long line of hit products, including microwavable popcorn. He deeply admired Pillsbury, its employees, and the warm image of its brand. But in recent years, he had seen the endearing, innocent image of the Pillsbury Doughboy replaced by news pictures of children too obese to play, suffering from diabetes and the earliest signs of hypertension and heart disease. He didn’t blame himself for creating high-calorie foods that the public found irresistible. He and other food scientists took comfort in knowing that the grocery store icons they had invented in a more innocent era—the soda and chips and TV dinners—had been imagined as occasional fare. It was society that had changed, changed so dramatically that these snacks and convenience foods had become a daily—even hourly—habit, a staple of the American diet.

Behnke’s perspective on his life’s work, though, began to shift when he was made a special advisor to Pillsbury’s chief executive in 1999. From his new perch, Behnke started to get a different view of what he called the “big tenets” of his industry—taste, convenience, and cost. He worried, especially, about the economics that drive companies to spend as little money as possible in making processed foods. “Cost was always there,” he told me. “Companies had different names for it. Sometimes they were called PIPs, or profit improvement programs, or margin enhancements, or cost reduction. Whatever you want to call it, people are always looking for a less expensive way.”

In the months leading up to the CEO meeting, Behnke was engaged in conversation with a group of food science experts who were painting an increasingly grim picture of the public’s ability to cope with the industry’s formulations. These discussions were sponsored by a food industry group, the International Life Sciences Institute, for which Behnke was the incoming president, and the topics—from the body’s fragile controls on overeating to the hidden power of some processed foods to make people feel hungrier still—convinced Behnke and the other insiders who organized the meeting that an intervention was needed. It was time to warn the CEOs that their companies may have gone too far in creating and marketing products to maximize their allure.

The discussion took place in Pillsbury’s auditorium. The executives took the first two rows of seats, just in front of the stage, which was raised slightly from the floor. The first speaker was a man named Michael Mudd, and he was not some white-coated researcher from the Pacific Northwest. He was from Chicago, one of the industry’s own: a vice president of Kraft.

Routinely ranked at or near the top of the industry with tens of billions of dollars in annual sales, Kraft has a power lineup of more than fifty-five brands that can carry the consumer through an entire day, from breakfast to midnight snack. For breakfast, it has stuffed bagels in eight varieties, with fully cooked bacon you can store in the cupboard right next to Tang, its powdered drink you can substitute for real orange juice. For lunch it has hot dogs, mac and cheese, and a TV dinner–like tray of meat and cheese called Lunchables. For dinner, it has the Velveeta Cheesy Skillets dinner kit, Shake ’n Bake, and Stove Top Stuffing. And for snacking, it has the king of cookies, the Oreo, which, at 490 billion cookies sold since its introduction a century ago, holds the crown as the most popular cookie of all time. As Kraft’s CEO, Bob Eckert, would tell a reporter later that year, his singular aim was to dominate the industry: “If I ask who’s the undisputed leader of the food industry, you might say Kraft. Then again, you might say Nestlé, Kellogg, General Mills, Nabisco. There is a whole cadre of companies performing well, but nobody’s really broken away from the pack. And that’s what I’d like to see Kraft do.”

Mudd had risen through Kraft’s corporate affairs office to become a company spokesman and much more. He tracked how consumers viewed the company generally, watched for signs of trouble from regulators, and helped guide the company’s rapid response to any significant threats, like the tempest that had arisen a few years earlier over trans fats. He was deeply attuned to public sentiment, a seasoned fixer highly skilled in dealing with critics. His insights had garnered so much respect that—at least in the view of other senior Kraft officials—Mudd became something of a consigliere to the company’s chief executives, the adviser whose whisperings helped guide the boss’s every move. As he stood on the stage that evening, the CEOs in the audience knew that it was in their interest to listen.

“I very much appreciate this opportunity to talk to you about childhood obesity and the growing challenge it presents for us all,” Mudd began. “Let me say right at the start, this is not an easy subject. There are no easy answers—for what the public health community must do to bring this problem under control. Or for what the industry should do as others seek to hold it accountable for what has happened. But this much is clear: For those of us who’ve looked hard at this issue, whether they’re public health professionals or staff specialists in your own companies, we feel sure that the one thing we shouldn’t do is nothing.”

As he spoke, Mudd clicked through a deck of slides—114 in all—that were projected on a large screen behind him. This would be straight-up, in-your-face talk, no sugar-coating on his part. The headlines and phrases and figures were nothing short of staggering.

More than half of American adults were now considered overweight, with nearly one-quarter of the population—40 million adults—carrying so many extra pounds that they were clinically defined as obese. Among children, the rates had more than doubled since 1980, the year when the fat line on the charts began angling up, and the number of kids considered obese had shot past 12 million. (It was still only 1999; the nation’s obesity rates would climb much higher.)

“Massive social costs estimated as high as $40–$100 billion a year,” announced one of Mudd’s slides in bright, bold lettering.

Then came the specifics: diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, gallbladder disease, osteoarthritis, three types of cancer—breast, colon, and that of the uterus lining—all on the rise. To varying degrees, the executives were told, obesity was being cited as one of the causes for each of these health crises. To drive the point home, they were shown how to calculate obesity using the body mass index, a simple ratio of height to weight, and given a few moments to determine their own BMIs with the formula that flashed up on the screen. (On this count, most of the men in the room could rest easy. They had personal trainers, gym memberships, and enough nutritional awareness to avoid diets that were heavy in the foods they manufactured.)

Mudd then brought them back to the reality as experienced by their middle-class customers, who were spending their gym time working a second job to make ends meet and not thinking too hard about their own diets. The media were having a field day with these people, he said, churning out front-page stories on obesity and the industry’s role in fostering overconsumption. Up on the screen, he played a snippet from a new PBS Frontline report called “Fat,” which featured the chair of Harvard’s Department of Nutrition, Walter Willett, pointing the finger directly at the food companies. “The transition of food to being an industrial product really has been a fundamental problem,” Willett said. “First, the actual processing has stripped away the nutritional value of the food. Most of the grains have been converted to starches. We have sugar in concentrated form, and many of the fats have been concentrated and then, worst of all, hydrogenated, which creates trans-fatty acids with very adverse effects on health.”

Food manufacturers were getting heat not only from powerful critics at Harvard, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Heart Association, and the Cancer Society, Mudd said. They were now losing key allies. The secretary of agriculture, over whom the industry had long held sway, had recently called obesity a “national epidemic.” And it didn’t take much effort to see why the USDA chief felt compelled to bite the hand that feeds. The agency promoted healthy eating through its food pyramid, with grains at the base and far smaller quantities of sweets and fat squeezed into the top. Their companies, Mudd told the executives, were promoting the opposite habits. “If you mapped categories of food advertising, especially advertising to kids, against the Food Guide Pyramid, it would turn the pyramid on its head,” he said. “We cannot pretend food isn’t part of the obesity problem. No credible expert will attribute the rise in obesity solely to decreased physical activity.”

He flashed another slide up on the screen. “What’s driving the increase?” it asked. “Ubiquity of inexpensive, good-tasting, super-sized, energy-dense foods.” In other words, the very foods on which these executives, along with their brethren in the fast food chains, had staked the success of their companies.

Having laid the blame for obesity at the feet of the CEOs, Mudd then did the unthinkable. He touched the third rail of the processed food industry, drawing a connection to the last thing in the world the CEOs wanted linked to their products: cigarettes. First came a quote from a Yale University professor of psychology and public health, Kelly Brownell, who had become an especially vocal proponent of the view that the processed food industry should be seen as a public health menace: “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.”