The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Opinion

May 13, 2013

Marta Mossburg, columnist: Writer uncovers scheme to make America fat

— In the 2008 Pixar movie “WALL.E,” humans so clogged up the earth with garbage they had to move to spaceships. Motorized chairs ferried the obese blobs portraying people of the future, who sipped liquids from massive cups and sat mesmerized by video screens.

It was both funny and scary in its assessment of America’s throw-away, fast-food culture where convenience is everything and self-control and direction is outsourced to technology. At the time of the movie, it was part of an emerging chorus of voices decrying Americans’ growing girth. Five years later it is almost impossible to go a day without seeing a news story on obesity; first lady Michelle Obama has made childhood exercise and healthy eating a top priority; and even purveyors of the triumvirate of salt, sugar and fat feel compelled to make amends for selling the stuff most blamed for everything from extra pounds to diabetes and heart disease. Coca-Cola, for example, recently promised to make lower-calorie drinks and nutrition information for its products more widely available around the world.

The consensus opinion is that fast food companies and convenience food makers are to blame for the fact that 69 percent of America is either overweight or obese. 2013’s “Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us” by Michael Moss, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist at The New York Times, makes one of the most compelling arguments for a side that has compiled reams of evidence that Americans are victims of a plot to maximize profits at the expense of our cholesterol levels, blood pressure and body mass index.

As Moss uncovered, the processed food industry has made a science of finding the “bliss” point for sugar, salt and fat, and has developed foods arguably as addictive as alcohol and drugs. It has also found ways to make it nearly impossible to pass their products in stores and been behind the massive proliferation of convenience stores throughout the U.S. — one of the best means to hook children and teenagers on their food and make them customers for life.

I agree that they are a big part of the problem — just as those who sold mortgages to people they knew couldn’t afford them were to the financial crisis. But he is so focused on assigning blame to one group that he glosses over the habits and norms that allowed Americans to become such easy prey for companies who make a living off of giving us what we crave.

For example, Moss mentions how the rise of convenience foods in the 1950s coincides with women moving into the work force in droves. But he does not explore how that shift impacted our collective ability to combat unhealthy food — what happens when there are fewer family dinners, for example — and what can be done in a society where that is not going to change. Even if it did, the culture of convenience is too ingrained and raising children too time consuming to send women and men to the kitchen for daily scratch cooking, even if they wanted to — aside from a few outliers.

And what about the millions of people who just don’t care about what they eat and want instant gratification in food just as they seek it in many other areas of their life? Those people most likely will never read his book.

The likely conclusion for many from his exhaustive look into the processed food industry is that it should be sued. Blaming others for our problems is the American way, and what the companies have done is manipulative if not illegal. But if the end goal is to make Americans thinner, processed food must start being perceived as gross and bad. If you live in wealthy zip codes, chub is as outcast as cigarettes, and healthy eating is practically a religion. Certainly there are creative minds in the advertising and marketing industry willing and able to proselytize these views to all of America. If not, my guess is that trial lawyers will get richer as Americans get even fatter.

Marta H. Mossburg writes about national affairs. Write her at marta@martamossburg.com. Follow her on Twitter at @mmossburg.

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