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How Food Companies Trick Consumers Into Eating Their Unhealthy Products

According to Michael Moss, the Pulitzer prizing-winning reporter and author of the new book Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, executives at the major food behemoths – Kraft (KRFT), General Mills (GIS) and Nestle – have known for years that the sugar, salt and fat added to their cereals, soups, tomato sauces and hundreds of other food products have put millions of individuals’ health at risk. But the quest for bigger profits and a larger share of the consumer market has compelled the processed food industry to turn a blind eye to the dangers and consequences of eating those very products.

Moss’ book exposes the inner workings of the food industry and details how these food giants spend millions of dollars to make the food we eat more addictive. After reading his book, which took Moss four years to write and report, one may never want to consume another Cheez-It cracker or Lunchable again.

How do the food giants trick consumers? Moss gives several examples:

  • “At Cargill, scientists are altering the physical shape of salt, pulverizing it into a fine powder to hit the taste buds faster and harder, improving what the company calls its ‘flavor burst.’”
  • “Scientists at Nestle are currently fiddling with the distribution and shape of fat globules to affect their absorption rate and, as it’s known in the industry, ‘their mouthfeel.’”
  • “To make a new soda guaranteed to create a craving requires the high math of regression analysis and intricate charts to plot what industry insiders call the “bliss point,” or the precise amount of sugar or fat that will send consumers over the moon.”

Moss says the food companies profiled in his book understand that salt, sugar and fat “are their pillars, their holy grail.” These companies employ cadres of scientists “who specialize in the senses” and the industry “methodically studies and controls” the use of salt, sugar and fat.

Even though consumers may think food companies are trying to help their waistlines by offering “low fat” or “low sodium” items, that’s not actually the case. Companies will add extra sugar to “low fat” products and “low sodium” offerings tend to have both higher quantities of sugar and fat.

Processed foods are designed “to make people feel hungrier,” Moss writes. “The processed food industry has helped foster overconsumption. Salt, sugar and fat are the foundation of processed food.”

Rising obesity rates are a global problem. In the U.S. alone, two-thirds of adults are either obese or overweight. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that nearly half of American adults will be obese by 2030. One in six American children is obese today.

Related: Obesity to Cost Taxpayers 'Billions of Dollars': Weight Watchers CEO

Overeating and lack of exercise are the two culprits blamed for weight gain. But cheap food and the general convenience and availability of it have also contributed to the obesity crisis.

Moss provides startling evidence of just how much food people are consuming these days:

  • The average American eats 33 pounds of cheese every year, triple what we ate in 1970.
  • Americans ingest 8,500 milligrams of salt a day, double the recommended amount.
  • We consume 71 pounds of caloric sweeteners each year, equivalent to 22 teaspoons of sugar per person, per day.

The addiction to salt and sugar does not end with consumers. The food giants' “relentless drive” to reach maximum profits at the lowest possible cost has given these companies no incentive to use real, wholesome ingredients. Sugar, for example, not only sweetens but “replaces more costly ingredients, like tomatoes in ketchup to add bulk and texture,” according to Moss.

“It costs more money to use real herbs and spices,” Moss says. "Economics drive companies to spend as little money as possible in making processed foods. That’s the dilemma.”

Related: Why We’re Fat: It’s the Government and Wall Street’s Fault: Marion Nestle Says

But food executives need to seriously start examining the consequences of their actions, Moss warns.

“They’re coming under increasing pressure from consumers,” he argues. “We care more and more about what we’re putting into our mouths and bodies. The food industry is...where tobacco was in the 1990s – at the verge of losing the public trust. That’s a very dangerous spot for the food industry to be in.”

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