Reading list: Salt Sugar Fat – Do companies have an obligation to produce more healthy foods?

I’ve been reading the book Salt, Sugar, Fat by Michael Moss, and came across some interesting comments:

The industry has a different view of food economics: It is their products that make eating affordable. In 2012, an industry group launched a publicity campaign that raises the specter of a planet with nine billion people to argue for a continued reliance on processed foods. In this scenario, salt, sugar, and fat are not demons, but rather safe, reliable, and cheap ways to deliver necessary calories. But even some industry insiders have an alternative view: They argue that the low cost of processed foods has been thwarting the development of healthier ways of feeding the world.

“We’re hooked on inexpensive food, just like we’re hooked on cheap energy,” said James Behnke, the former Pillsbury executive. “The real question is this price sensitivity and, unfortunately, the growing disparity of income between the haves and have-nots. It costs more money to eat fresher, healthier foods. And so, there is a huge economic issue involved in the obesity problem. It falls most heavily on those who have the fewest resources and probably the least understanding or knowledge of what they are doing.”

My overall feeling is that we already know that the processed food industry is producing such bad food for us and none of this is really surprising at all. These processed food companies are trying to make money, and they achieve that by making the best-tasting food possible and encouraging us to consume more and more of it. It is a little disturbing to see the companies exploit people’s vulnerabilities to salt, sugar and fat with seemingly no thought to human health – “We’re giving people what they want, and cheaply too” is the sentiment we get from them.

This notion of seizing control in order to ward off an unhealthy dependence on processed food may be the best recourse we have in the short term. Consumer advocates are pushing the government to compel the food industry to undertake a wide range of changes in their formulations and marketing, including  large reductions in their loads of salt, sugar, and unhealthy fats, restrictions on what foods can be sold through school vending machines, and redesigns of labels to make their nutritional information easier to read. But if the government or industry resists, these changes could take many years. In the meantime, only we can save us.

This book is one in a long list of books discussing the processed food industry that will hopefully help to change consumers’ choices towards healthier food options. It’s great in that Michael Moss has interviewed many food industry insiders to see their take on it, as it’s usually not the case that it’s a one-sided affair with the processed food industry being the bad person here.

What do you think? Do these processed food companies have any obligation to produce more healthy food and encourage peoples’ health – or should health be the domain of governments in the form of regulation and education?

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