The giant processed food companies might hate the “A” word “addiction” more than any other, but the lingo they use internally in the industry truly illustrate the dependence they have on ingredients that continue to raise concern in the public health community, the author of the bestselling book Salt Sugar Fat said at the Sept. 22 opening plenary address at the National Conference on Addiction Disorders (NCAD).
Inside industry terms such as “cravability” and “more-ishness,” or the engineered sensation in consumers of wanting to have more of a certain product, depict a culture where the food companies at times seem more reliant on the salt, sugar and fat in their products than are the adults and children to whom they market, said New York Times Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Michael Moss.
While Moss’s presentation at the Anaheim, Calif., conference sponsored by the publishers of Addiction Professional focused on how food companies have shaped the habits of consumers, he also addressed how leaders in the drug abuse field are characterizing the role and properties of food. He said that in a discussion with Nora Volkow, MD, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), she expressed the view that many sugar- and fat-laden foods yield the same compulsive behaviors seen in drug addiction.
Unfortunately, unlike with substances, food is omnipresent in our lives and individuals can’t simply quit eating, Moss said.
The session at NCAD clearly left some attendees wondering about how the food choices that their clients make—and that their treatment programs often reinforce—affect their progress in treatment and recovery.
On a total population level, of course, the data are staggering, with 1 in 3 adults in the United States considered clinically obese and about 24 million individuals with Type 2 diabetes. Moss said that while much of this can be laid at the feet of the processed food industry, he does not portray these executives as an “evil empire” trying to poison the planet but simply a group of business-minded individuals who can’t reasonably be expected to change their ways.
In fact, he emphasized that many of the industry executives he interviewed for his book have expressed some remorse over their role in shaping consumers’ unhealthy habits.
Many of Moss’s suggestions for a healthier future involve educating consumers, and particularly the next generation through efforts such as encouraging more cooking in families. He acknowledged the inevitable backlash against industry-targeting policies espoused by leaders such as New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and said some public health advocates have favored moving toward a softer approach in which leaders teach more and preach less.
“I like to think the book could be used as a wake-up call, empowering to us as consumers,” said Moss. “So at least when you walk into a [grocery] store, you can do a better job of leveling the playing field, and at least know why you should be spending more time along the perimeter.”