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

chapter eleven

“No Sugar, No Fat, No Sales”

Ellen Wartella was never one for processed foods. She took cooking classes, and both she and her husband loved to spend time in the kitchen. Together, they plied their two sons with homemade dinners, and while she tolerated their fondness for junk food and things that came in a box, she didn’t exactly encourage it. “When my kids were growing up, we bought Kraft Macaroni & Cheese because they loved it,” she said. “And I remember being appalled by that.”

In middle school, she recalled, one of her sons swooned for another of Kraft’s mega-hits, Lunchables, especially the version with pizza. His crush, however, soon extinguished itself. By the time they reached high school in the late 1990s, both boys had been exposed to the dark side of public health and marketing. They came to loathe the cigarette companies, in particular, for deliberately hooking the country on a habit that killed people in horrible, untimely ways.

Wartella worked as the dean of the College of Communications at the University of Texas in Austin, where she had amassed some opinions of her own regarding industrial marketing. She had spent thirty years researching the affects of media on children, including TV violence and advertising, and her twelve books and 175 reports and papers had made her one of the country’s leading experts on the subject. In 2003, she got a call, out of the blue, from a senior executive from Kraft. He asked her if she would join a panel of health and marketing experts that the company was putting together for guidance on how to deal with obesity. The panel sounded to Wartella like something the august Institute of Medicine might assemble to examine a health crisis: Kraft had recruited two medical doctors versed in diabetes and public health, a psychologist who studied behavior and obesity, and a food nutrition researcher who specialized in obesity and heart disease—nine experts in all, with Wartella being asked to make it an even ten.

At the time, Kraft had two people acting as CEO, and both issued statements when the panel was formed explaining why the largest food company in the world was undertaking a mission that heretofore had fallen squarely within the domain of government, not private industry. “The council will give Kraft access to a range of important voices from outside the company,” said Betsy Holden, one of the CEOs, “who can play an invaluable role in helping us develop our response to the global challenge of obesity.” To which her partner, Roger Deromedi, added: “We welcome the council’s knowledge, insight, and judgment, all of which will help us strengthen the alignment of our products and marketing practices with societal needs.”

Wartella was heartened by the notion of a publicly traded company talking about society’s needs and actually taking steps to learn how it might better serve them. Companies, after all, existed to make money for their stockholders, and Kraft was tied to one of the biggest moneymakers of them all: Philip Morris. The tobacco giant had owned Kraft for fifteen years, and this was a problem for Wartella’s kids. When she told them she’d been invited to join the panel, they responded with outrage. “Both my boys were appalled at the idea of my joining an advisory board for Kraft, because both my children are very antismoking,” she told me. “They said, ‘How could you work for a company that is pushing cigarettes?’ ”

Wartella, however, had an inkling she might be able to do some good. She was no expert on obesity, but Kraft was a principal player in a recent development she had been tracking with increasing dismay: the targeting of vulnerable kids through the use of online games and various social media marketing schemes. “My early research was all on helping young children distinguish between the editorial content of TV and the persuasive intent of the advertisements, which they have difficulty separating,” she told me. “Now, these new strategies were coming along that completely erased that.”

And kids were responding. Obesity was setting all sorts of records in 2003. The average adult was 24 pounds heavier than in 1960. One in three Americans—and nearly one in five kids, aged six to eleven—were classified as obese. As scientists poked at and measured the obesity crisis, one fact emerged from their studies that shocked people more than any other: Obesity was a lasting, seemingly incurable affliction. Kids who were overweight tended to stay that way for life.

Despite the proclamations from Kraft’s CEOs and her conversations with the Kraft executive who wanted her to join the advisory panel, Wartella had her doubts about the sincerity of Kraft’s undertaking. How could she not? Expert after expert was pointing the finger at processed food, and until now, Kraft had joined the rest of the industry in ducking blame. Why should she believe all this talk about society’s needs?

Wartella finally decided to join the advisory group, but only after making a vow to herself and her kids: She would quit if it turned out to be more of the same old obfuscation.

After the group’s first two meetings at Kraft’s headquarters near Chicago, Wartella’s fears about the company’s sincerity seemed to be justified. The talks roamed across the landscape of obesity, but only broadly, touching on nutrition, exercise, and portion sizes. Always, the conversation was deferential toward Kraft, the $35 billion elephant in the room. This changed, however, in the third session. Wartella had been asked to discuss marketing, and she arrived having done her homework. The session started out with Kraft officials presenting a rosy view of the company’s practices, which included a policy of not advertising to children younger than six. Wartella begged to differ.

In truth, she said, Kraft’s own websites were riddled with tricks that lured young kids to their sweetest and fattiest products. She cited games that entailed counting up Oreos, or going on hide-and-seek missions to find Barney Rubble, whose role in the game was to tout the company’s Fruity Pebbles cereal. These were marketing tricks that clearly circumvented the self-imposed advertising ban on children, she said, as did the company’s use of cartoon characters to hawk its mac and cheese and cookies. Even its packaging was decorated with Shrek and Dora the Explorer, the better to seduce young kids.

“I pointed this out, and I said, ‘You are at best disingenuous, and at worst you’re outright lying.’ The nutrition scientists and the other people on the advisory board were kind of appalled by the strength of my statements. One or two people came up to me afterwards and said, ‘They’re going to get you off this thing.’ ”

But that did not happen. The officials at Kraft listened. Not only that, they asked Wartella to dig even deeper into the company’s marketing practices and come back with more stinging critiques, which she did. Wartella came to believe that her original fears were unfounded. The panel was making a difference, and Kraft seemed to be, incredibly, starting to address the ways its own practices were contributing to the obesity crisis.

This was no small thing. For the processed food industry, 2003 was shaping up to be a furious, competitive race to boost America’s consumption of its products. Not only were wars taking place in which the sole objective was to flood the grocery aisles with items with ever higher loads of salt, sugar, and fat, a huge new player in groceries had accelerated the competition for space on the shelf. Wal-Mart had begun selling food, and just since 2000 the retailing giant had boosted its grocery, candy, and tobacco sales by 46 percent to $39.4 billion, sending food manufacturers rushing to the company’s headquarters in Arkansas to pitch their wares. The big manufacturers were in a separate race to the bottom when it came to the economics of food, seeking out new ways to cut their ingredient costs, lower the price of their food, and thus turn processed food into the only logical choice shoppers could make.*

Kraft was no stranger to this contest. Its product managers were turning out some of the most enticing, supersized, and cheapest items of all, from the fruit drink called Capri Sun (later “up-sized” to the Big Pouch) to the fat-laden Lunchables (expanded into the Maxed Out size) to the Cheese Stuffed Crust Supreme DiGiorno frozen pizza (with three meats added to with the extra cheese, delivering more than two days’ worth of the recommended maximum of saturated fat and sodium in a single pie weighing nearly two pounds). “Build and defend,” was the rallying cry in Kraft’s internal pep talks. “Drive consumption.”

Inside this same company, however, a heretical view had emerged. Starting in the late 1990s, a small group of senior Kraft officials had been watching America’s massive weight gain with growing alarm. They didn’t buy the industry’s view that consumers were to blame for the obesity crisis by being slothful or lacking in willpower. The small group of insiders had a different take on America’s gluttony. Some were emotionally vested, believing that they had an ethical and moral imperative to help resolve the epidemic of obesity, for which their industry was in large part responsible. Others made a more practical argument: The consumer backlash on processed foods, when it came, would exact a heavy toll on the company’s profits. “We were trying to convince senior management that we would be better off in the long run if we gave up a little to save a lot, in terms of our long-term business reputation and success,” said Kathleen Spear, a senior vice president and member of this cabal at Kraft.

The group got Kraft to empanel the experts, and it then used their testimony as ammunition in convincing Kraft to act. At first, the steps the company took were modest in scope, starting with urging restraint in the company’s marketing strategies. But that was just window dressing. In order to change the company, these Kraft officials quickly realized, they had to confront the fundamental nature—the heart and soul—of processed food.

Since its earliest days, Kraft had directed every last shred of its talent and energy toward making its products as enticing as possible. Central to this mission were the formulations of salt, sugar, and fat that made the products attractive. The bliss point was no abstraction. Kraft’s legacy was built on doing this bigger and better than any other manufacturer. Yet this was precisely where the Kraft officials concerned about obesity saw they would have to go: into the actual product formulations, and their loads of salt, sugar, and fat. What if these formulations were causing people to buy and eat too much? they asked. Could they find a way to help people ease up without killing off their own company?

Had federal regulators dared to ask these questions, they would have been branded as traitors to free enterprise. This was, after all, the most sacrosanct part of the business, the most staunchly defended. The insiders who worried about obesity had to tread very carefully in how they parsed the issue at hand: the desire created by their products. “We’re a food business,” Spear recalled thinking. “We wanted people to delight in the taste of everything we made, particularly when it came to snacks and cookies. We were mindful that we were selling confectionaries and snacks and not rice cakes. It was never, ‘Gee, we ought to cut back on the allure.’ Rather, it was, ‘We ought to make sure we’re not directly or indirectly or subliminally encouraging overconsumption.’ ”

However the equation was approached, the idea of a food giant exploring the question of how to get people to eat less was astonishing, and in the coming months Kraft would dive more deeply into the psychology of overeating than any manufacturer had ever gone before. But as I examined this extraordinary moment at Kraft, it became apparent that there was yet another force at play influencing the company’s decisions. For years, much of Kraft’s motivation in getting people to eat more of its convenience foods had come from the bosses at Philip Morris. The tobacco executives encouraged them to find ever more potent ways to attract consumers and then applauded the victories when sales surged. They even supplied Kraft with their own marketing apparatus and strategies that had been so successful in selling cigarettes—precisely the relationship that Ellen Wartella’s boys had disdained in trying to stop her from joining the panel on obesity.

But behind the scenes, in the private rooms where the most senior officials gathered to account for their actions and receive their guidance for going forward, a dramatic shift occurred. In this confidential setting, I discovered—from secret documents and interviews with officials who spoke publicly for the first time on these matters—the same tobacco-steeped overlords in New York who had spent their own careers promoting cigarettes and denying addiction did the unthinkable: They fell in with the cabal and began urging Kraft to make changes in response to the growing epidemic of obesity.

Salt, sugar, and fat may have been the formula that carried Kraft to the apex of the processed food industry, the tobacco men said. But just as nicotine had turned on them, becoming a yoke that sunk their profits, so too would salt, sugar, and fat become Kraft’s millstones, dragging the whole company down with them.