When we know why something is a good or bad idea, it’s much more likely we will follow through on efforts to choose the good and avoid the bad. Otherwise we feel conflicted and guilty, we can’t make confident decisions. We have so many things going on with our families, there is no way we can fully commit to beneficial behaviors without understanding what is at stake.
In the battle to maintain good health and feed our families good food we are up against giant companies with powerful interests that conflict with our own. We need to understand what drives the food companies that create the food that we buy in the central aisles of the grocery store.
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I recently read Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss, and here are my biggest takeaways from the book, which are four things that we all need to know about processed food and the companies who make them.
1. They researched the bliss point and made food addictive
Food companies spend an incredible amount of money paying scientists to do research and determine the bliss point. This is a specific point at which the amount of salt, sugar and fat in a processed food product is maximally appealing without making the taste strong enough that we will tire of it. In short, they have made a science out of creating food that is addictive, that creates a craving for it.
Food scientists have spent years in laboratories altering the physical shape and structure of the strategic ingredients of salt, sugar and fat in order to evoke specific reactions in our mouth and our brain when we eat specially engineered foods.
People who know psychology and biology better than you do are spending billions of dollars to create and market products that are irresistible to you, your husband, and your kids.
2. They are fundamentally dependent on non-nutritional ingredients and formulas
Industry insiders have grown concerned about the links between their products and the obesity epidemic. Efforts to reform their approach have been met by multiple obstacles. When they attempt to improve the nutritional profile of their foods, they cannot afford to reduce the appeal. So they often will reduce the fat but add more sugar, or vice versa. Internal reform efforts have been caught between the company’s competitors and their own stockholders. To add to this difficulty, the very nature of processed food requires a certain amount of salt and sugar in order to make many of the products hold a certain texture and to maintain the required shelf life.
On average we currently eat 22 teaspoons of added sugar a day. In 2009 the American Heart Association recommended a limit for sugar of 5 teaspoons a day for moderately active women. This proposal was fought vigorously by the food industry because sugar is not just an ingredient that makes food enjoyable to eat for consumers. Sugar is also a chemical with a fundamental role in the structure of the final product. Candy, bread, cookies, and crackers cannot exist in anything similar to their current processed, shelf-stable forms without considerable amounts of sugar.
3. They prioritize profit
Profit has consistently been a critical consideration for food companies throughout their existence. Large food companies have long been indebted to stockholders which means they weren’t focused on feeding the public but on making their products cheaper and getting them purchased in larger quantities, in order to consistently be increasing their profits for shareholders.
4. They provide us with convenience and save us time but at the cost of health
Food companies have been focused and proactive in providing foods that are convenient. They correctly read the desire in modern families to have convenient food available so that people can easily acquire and consume food and spend their time and energy on other enjoyable, rewarding, or at least productive pursuits. The food companies have strategically and completely provided a high level of convenience in all of their modern products.
This requires the modern cook to work up a great deal of willpower and moral resolve in order to make anything from scratch in the kitchen, and to purchase wisely at the store.
When we avoid the snack aisle, they draw us back with 100 calorie packs of snacks, but they continue to make the product with such an irresistible formula, hitting the bliss point so perfectly that we end up eating more than one pack. Whenever we purchase products that say organic, low fat, or no sugar on the front, there is no guarantee that we are in fact purchasing a ‘healthy’ product. Typically when they decrease fat, they increase the amount of sugar, or vice versa.
Finding Balance and the Way Forward
I believe that we can find the right balance between enjoying all of the progress that has been made in the process of feeding the populations of the 21st century, while still taking ownership of our own health, and retaining the knowledge and habits of certain home cooking and food prep that will preserve our health and our appreciation for real food.
While there is no quick path and no easy answer, it is a great start for us to be mindful, informed and aware of the agenda of the food companies, and the affect of ingredients on us physically, mentally and emotionally. We pay a price for the convenience we enjoy and while that is indeed a blessing, it is also a responsibility that we must embrace and not delegate to distant CEOs with corporate interests.
For more on how to enjoy cooking and the value you get from feeling connected to the source of your food read Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation by Michael Pollan.
What is your biggest challenge or obstacle to eating fewer processed foods? Share in the comments!
I want you to take time to consider how knowing the behavior and agenda of the large food companies could affect your shopping habits and the time you budget for meals and food prep.
When you work on discovering your core values, take time to consider the importance of health and fitness to you and your family. It’s also a good idea to log your time and work on improving your time management skills. Changing how we eat is a slow process and that’s okay. Feeding a family day after day is a challenge all by itself. I haven’t figured this all out either, but I am on a journey to align how I spend my time, my resources and ultimately my life, to align more closely with my values. And I’m realizing that might just mean taking more time and energy to help my family eat more whole foods and fewer processed foods.
Action Step: Pick one processed food to replace with a whole food alternative, and try it for a week.
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