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

chapter ten

“The Message the Government Conveys”

The Department of Agriculture is headquartered on the National Mall, a mere stroll from the Washington Monument. It is the only cabinet-level agency with this distinction, and in keeping with the open-door policies of its neighbors—the museums of the Smithsonian—it maintains a modest visitors center for tourists. With 117,000 employees, the agency prides itself on being of service to the country at large, a populist arm of the government. After all, when President Abraham Lincoln created it in 1862 for a country that was still heavily agrarian, he called it “The People’s Department.”

There are actually two buildings that form the headquarters of the Department of Agriculture, and both are massive. The main one, which houses the top brass, was built in sections starting in 1904. Its two wings, detailed with white marble, stretch for one-sixth of a mile along the Mall and are braced by the gigantic white Corinthian columns typical of the Beaux Arts style. Behind this stands the South Building, which went up in 1936 to house the agency’s expanding operations. Its 4,500 rooms and seven miles of corridors gave it the distinction of being the largest office building in the world until the Pentagon was built a few years later.

Inside the Department of Agriculture, where the public is less welcome, the agency pursues an agenda that is every bit as massive as the buildings themselves: Overseeing the food that Americans eat. Its principal mission is to ensure the integrity of the country’s most fundamental life-giving force, from farm to fork. But in this matter, the People’s Department of Lincoln’s imaginings has long been enmeshed in a conflict of interest that undermines its populist roots. On one side are the 312 million or so people of the United States and their health, which the USDA is charged with safeguarding. On the other side are the three hundred or so companies that form the $1 trillion industry of food manufacturing, companies that the USDA feels obligated to placate and nurture. Nowhere is the tension between what is good for the companies and what is good for the people more evident than in one of the pillars of processed foods: fat.

Fat, of course, is the lubricant that sustains the $90 billion trade in snack foods, providing that crucial element known as mouthfeel to corn chips and crackers, ice cream and cookies. But in a little-known fact of nutrition, neither chips nor desserts are pumping anywhere near the levels of fat into our bodies as two other mainstays of processed foods. In fact, the biggest deliverers of saturated fat—the type of fat doctors worry about—are cheese and red meat, and it is in producing and selling these two products that the food industry has shown its greatest ability to influence public policy. With the American people facing an epidemic of obesity and hardened arteries, the “People’s Department” doesn’t regulate fat as much as it grants the industry’s every wish. Indeed, when it comes to the greatest sources of fat—meat and cheese—the Department of Agriculture has joined industry as a full partner in the most urgent mission of all: cajoling the people to eat more.

To meet the employees of the Department of Agriculture who work on the people’s side of things, protecting their nutritional health, you have to hop on the Washington Metro, ride under the Potomac River, and then transfer to a bus, which takes you to an intersection in the far western edge of Alexandria, Virginia. From there, you still have to walk a third of a mile to a stone-and-glass building and ride an elevator up to the tenth floor. Here, finally, is a division called the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. Its lowly rank in the pecking order is not only reflected in its satellite office status, it is reflected in the amount of money it’s allowed to spend in pursuit of healthier food. The center’s annual budget is a paltry $6.5 million, which amounts to 0.0045 percent of the agency’s overall outlays of $146 billion. Given this constraint, the center channels much of its energy into a single modest endeavor: creating and promoting an official guide to better eating.

This guide, which sets the framework for the government’s policies on nutrition, was first published in 1980, when obesity was starting to surge. It gets updated every five years with help from a panel of experts that works with the center to assess the state of America’s eating habits. This group includes dieticians, educators, research scientists, and epidemiologists, and over the years they have zeroed in on the biggest culprits in overeating. Their lengthy, heavily detailed reports have documented the country’s addiction to sugar and charted our dependence on salt as well. Some of the panel’s most compelling work came in preparing its latest report, published by the USDA in 2010.

Saturated fat, the panel concluded, has been on a tear.

This type of fat—so named by chemists for the way it is fully saturated with hydrogen atoms, without the double-bonded carbons that characterize unsaturated fats—has long been associated with heart disease, the panel noted. It is a primary cause of high cholesterol in the bloodstream, a waxy substance that leads to heart attacks and strokes, and a significant profit center for the pharmaceutical industry. An estimated thirty-two million Americans are taking drugs to reduce their cholesterol levels. But for the first time, the panel also stressed that saturated fat was partly responsible for another health epidemic: type 2 diabetes, the kind caused by poor diet. The latest estimates were that 24 million Americans had type 2 diabetes, with another 79 million people having pre-diabetes. Even more disturbing, a small but growing number of kids—many of them obese—were getting type 2 diabetes, with 3,600 new cases diagnosed each year.

The USDA panel had access to federal data on how much salt, sugar, and fat Americans were eating, and it found the levels for saturated fat to be chronically high, especially among children. To account for the differences in how much we eat overall, nutritionists measure the fat in our diets as a percentage of all the calories we consume. The consumption data showed that kids between one to three years were ingesting the most saturated fat of anyone—more than 12 percent of their total caloric intake. They were followed closely by older kids, at 11.5 percent, and adults, who clocked in at roughly 11 percent. These, of course, were averages, which did not take into account the people the food industry targets as “heavy users,” whose intake of fat knows no bounds.

“Deliberate public health efforts are warranted to reduce intakes of saturated fats,” the panel said in its 2010 report. So it took the bold step of lowering its recommended maximum allowance of saturated fat for everyone, kids and adults. The old limit was 10 percent. Now, said the panel, everyone should strive to reduce their intake to 7 percent, or barely more than half what kids are consuming today on average.*

Finally, the panel was granted access to the federal government’s research on where Americans were getting all this fat, and the findings were stunning. Topping the list of culprits was cheese, followed by pizza, which is basically a vehicle for conveying cheese. Together, cheese and pizza contributed more than 14 percent of the saturated fat being consumed. Second on the list was red meat in its various forms, which accounted for more than 13 percent of the fat in our diet. In third place—at a bit less than 6 percent—were all those grain-based desserts like chocolate cake and cookies, which are laden with oils. The list stretched on, meandering through the grocery aisles, from boxed frozen dinners to candy. Chips, from potato to corn, contributed only 2.4 percent of the saturated fat in our diet.

Taken together, the agency’s report on saturated fat—the health trouble, the overconsumption, the dominance of cheese and meat as the biggest sources—would seem to lead to a logical conclusion: We should stop eating so much cheese and meat. Which was precisely the conclusion reached by some of country’s smartest independent thinkers on nutritional health, including a man named Walter Willett, who leads the nutrition program at Harvard’s School of Public Health. Willett is blunt in urging people to cut back on cheese and red meat. Red meat, he says, should be slashed from the current average of one serving a day to no more than two servings a week. Moreover, red meat that has been processed into bacon, bologna, hot dogs, sandwich meats, and other products with added salt is best avoided altogether. Numerous other foods can supply the protein that people require, including chicken and fish, while their calcium needs can be met through vegetables and, if need be, a supplement.

But here is where consumer advocates and the consumer advocacy at the USDA diverge, and strikingly so. For starters, the 2010 guide buried the information about where we are getting all our saturated fat, slipping it into a single chart that appears on page 26 of the 95-page report. More significantly, nowhere in the document was there any explicit talk about reducing consumption of meat and cheese. Mum on this matter, too, was the reader-friendly graphic, shaped like a dinner plate, that was released in 2011 to help convey the message of better eating to the greatest number of Americans, including children.

Following the release of the guide, Willett and Margo Wootan, the director of nutrition at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, publicly confronted a spokesman for the USDA’s nutrition center. Appearing on a popular radio talk show based in Washington, D.C., in February 2011, Willett and Wootan accused the agency of being reluctant to point a finger not only at cheese and red meat, but at any specific food or product known to be a contributor to poor health. “If you really want people to reduce solid fat intake, you’ve got to talk about reducing consumption of red meat, consumption of cheese, ice cream, and other products like that,” Willett said. “That needs to be said clearly.… Unfortunately, I think the fingerprints of big beef, big dairy are still all over these guidelines.”

In reply, the deputy director of the nutrition center, Robert Post, launched into several familiar points that did little to assuage his critics. The agency was acting with full transparency, he said, opening the panel’s meetings to the public and not just industry representatives, with everyone’s input posted online. In his view, the science of nutrition revolved around nutrients, not particular foods, and the best strategies for achieving optimum health required the consideration of a person’s entire diet. “The idea isn’t to eliminate any specific food,” he said.

If that was all the People’s Department did in its guidelines—not name names when it came to helping people improve their diets—nutritionists might not have been so angry with the agency; people might still have been able to figure out for themselves that cheese and meat were the most obvious things to cut back on. But the USDA went further toward helping the food industry. The 2010 guide did, in fact, mention cheese. In a section titled, “Foods and Nutrients to Increase,” cheese was included among the foods that people should eat more of, not less. As for meat, the guide suggests eating more seafood for its omega-3 fatty acids, a “good” fat that appears to lower the risk of heart disease, but meat is touted throughout the report with the added assurance that neither it, nor milk products, have been specifically linked to obesity: “These foods are important sources of nutrients in healthy eating patterns.”

The agency offers one caveat with these recommendations: The cheese and meat we eat should be of the non-and lower-fat varieties. But there was a problem with this nuance, out in the real world. Since nonfat cheese tastes awful and the low-fat varieties aren’t much better, grocery stores mostly offer the full-fat varieties. Meat is even more problematic. There are no whole cuts of red meat in the grocery store that fall within the USDA’s definition of “low-fat,” which is 3 percent fat or less.

The closest they come to this standard is 5 percent fat, known as extra-lean, and 10 percent fat, known as lean. A piece of lean meat just over three ounces has four-and-a-half grams of saturated fat, nearly a third of the recommended maximum for a day’s intake. Nonetheless, this was precisely the kind of meat that the USDA was urging people to eat.

These lean-type meats—even with their third of a day’s saturated fat in each serving—aren’t what people envision when they think of meat. They often lack the deep flavor and silky mouthfeel that comes from a highly marbled steak, where the heated fat swims over the tongue to send signals of joy to the brain. But even if more people wanted to follow the USDA’s advice and eat lean meat, finding it in the grocery store would be no piece of cake. In fact, it can require considerable skill in the game of hide and seek. (Shopping for meat is not like shopping for cereal, where sugar content is required, by law, to be listed on the box.) A little explanation in the ways of Washington is needed to understand why.

Another federal agency, the Food and Drug Administration, quite apart from the Department of Agriculture, oversees all of the food in the grocery store except for the meat and dairy. The FDA has its own issues in balancing the needs of consumers and the needs of industry, but starting in the 1990s it took a major leap forward on behalf of consumers: It required food manufacturers to spell out on the packaging exactly how much salt, sugar, and fat their products contained so that shoppers could make better assessments of what they are eating.? By contrast, the Department of Agriculture is only now starting to move in this direction with meat—and an awkward start it has been. In selling most meats, grocery stores are merely required to post a guide—listing the fat content of generic cuts—somewhere in the vicinity of the cooler. This chart can be placed high, it can be placed low, it can even be placed on the other side of the aisle; in short, it can be made very easy to miss. To help out, the beef industry has created an online guide that discloses the fat content of generic cuts of meat, and suggests that consumers who want less fat look for clues on the label, including the words round or loin.

In 2012, the USDA required this information to be placed directly on packages of ground beef, but even this came with a gift to the meat producers. At the industry’s urging, the Department of Agriculture allowed them to put the word lean on their packages even when the meat is not lean by the agency’s own definition. For example, the fattiest hamburger sold in stores has six or more grams of saturated fat in three ounces. And yet the label approved by the USDA will read: “70 percent lean, 30 percent fat.” Of course, there is a good reason the industry wants to use the word lean. According to surveys done by consumer advocates, the lean-fat labeling causes shoppers to think the meat has less fat than it really does—if they are looking at the label at all. For many, if not most, people, the decision-making stops at the price, and here, too, there is a perverse real-world issue that cancels out the federal advice to eat lean meats: The more fat that meat has, the less it costs. In 2012, stores were charging $1 more a pound for the leaner grades.