As I read Michael Moss's new book, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, I saw myself in it. I grew up as an average American kid in the 1990s, eating and enjoying all of the food items highlighted in Moss' book. Sugary cereal before school. Lunchables pizza with my classmates in the cafeteria. "Healthy" low-fat cookies for dessert. Like many other parents, mine were poorly educated on the health implications of daily consumption of these products. They just knew that my sister and I loved this food and would eat it without apprehension. In some cases, like the low-fat cookies, my parents believed that they were providing a healthy alternative to other snacks.
As I grew older, the effects of my diet became more apparent. I was an active child. I played outside with my friends, and on organized sports teams including baseball, basketball, soccer and football. Even with my constant athletic involvement, I still was overweight throughout all of my adolescent years. I was teased because of it. My weight issues peaked my sophomore year of high school when I weighed 250 pounds, stopped playing sports, had no self-esteem, and was winded after running a half mile.
Reading Moss' book, I grew uneasy as he described the marketing and engineering principles used to reach one of the most targeted demographics: children. Examples include the use of fruit juice concentrate, which can make up as little as five percent of the total beverage, to give the "health halo" to sugary drinks. Other packaging mistruths include the promotion of cereals that are more than 50 percent sugar as part of a well-rounded breakfast. Lunchables are packaged to imitate the cheerful appearance of a gift to make children especially excited to open and enjoy the food inside.
Since the 1970s, researchers have known that kids are attracted to higher levels of salt and sugar, which companies have used as an advantage for their products. Moss quotes Julie Mennella, a biopsychologist, who describes this as "manipulating or exploiting the biology of the child." I was one of the kids these companies targeted and successfully sold their products to, becoming one of their "heavy users."
Moss declares that, "[the companies] may have salt, sugar, and fat on their side, but we, ultimately, have the power to make choices. After all, we decide what to buy. We decide how much to eat." I fully agree with his sentiment. After my sophomore year in high school, I made the choice to stop eating these highly processed foods and began my own exercise program. Now I have completed six half-marathons and one full marathon and maintained my 65 pound weight loss. I earned a degree in nutrition and am currently working toward becoming a registered dietitian. However, from my own experience, personal responsibility is difficult to maintain when other manipulative forces are at work.
I don't blame companies for providing a product that is unhealthy. Businesses need to make investors happy and produce growth by selling more. I do take offense to trickery and the obfuscation of nutritional messages that manipulate children and parents into purchasing unhealthy products as "normal" every day food. It makes losing weight and maintaining it really hard. This food environment that is promoted as "normal" today is one in which the deepest discounts at the grocery store are almost always offered on unhealthy junk food, and the food companies with the least healthy products often have the brightest and most appealing shelf-placement and packaging. Do we really want to make unhealthy food the easy option, the norm, the default?
As a FoodCorps service member teaching kids about healthy food, I see these issues firsthand. First graders know exactly what potato chips or pizza are but cannot identify cauliflower. We receive requests from high school consumer science teachers to lead nutrition classes, because their students eat a bag of Cheetos and a soda for breakfast.
Even though at FoodCorps we have successes and are making small changes, it is difficult to change students' perception of foods in this toxic food environment. Many of them would call normal food the stuff that ends in "nugget" or "mac," instead of spinach or sweet potatoes. I believe a good first step is to protect and support our children with education and environments conducive to healthy behaviors. It is not acceptable to quit in the face of initial opposition from children to new and different foods. Like FoodCorps co-founder, Debra Eschmeyer says "We don't give up on our kids with math, and we shouldn't give up on them with healthy food."
In addition to education, we must fight for change. We must stop giving the upper hand to companies that sell food on the premise of "betcha can't eat just one." We need to work together to create a "normal" food environment in which it is not a struggle to be healthy. We must strive for this change, one meal at a time.
Follow Daniel J. Schultz on Twitter: www.twitter.com/VegetableManDan