Viewpoint -- Food, Fun, and Fallacies

Dec. 21, 2004
Fat, sugar, and salt -- the terrible threesome. Fred is learning to live with them, and he has some questions for the food industry.

Fred has been overeating now for more than six decades. It was fun for the first decade -- before he was ready to intellectually confront the issues of overnutrition. As a child he didn't begin to realize the connection between overeating and his appearance until he discovered his classmates were thin -- most of them -- and that they tended to poke fun at the chubbies. That began the saga of Fred's intellectual confrontation with the United States' simultaneous embrace of physical fitness and overeating. While prizing the aesthetic virtues of thinness, our civilization insists on doing it in a culture where food is used as a demonstration of love, as a reward, and as a focal point of virtually every social gathering. What is it that we really want, Fred wonders. Is our goal just a cruel conspiracy to emphasize temptation in an omnipresent test of will power? If so, the latest statistics show growing failure. Fred reads that the obese have increased from 12% of the population in 1991 to 20% in 1998. In the same period the percentage of Americans that are simply overweight has grown from 44% to 54%. Meanwhile Type 2 diabetes, the type associated with obesity, has grown 33%, from 4.9% of the population to 6.5%. Fred asks: If some other health problem had statistics like that, wouldn't society have initiated a national plan of remediation? And in particular, wouldn't corporations that perpetuate the problem be restrained or held responsible? Their products at least taxed to raise money for countermeasures or research? But major food corporations seem to have escaped the fate of tobacco and alcohol producers, who pay through regulations, taxes, and, at times, legal sanctions for the health problems their products cause. Fred, for instance, is discouraged when it comes to what he has determined to be his three greatest nutritional challenges -- fat, sugar, and salt. Those ingredients surround him, in large part because food manufacturers seem not to supply healthful alternatives. For example, when he wants a snack at the office, all the offerings in the vending machine emphasize those ingredients. His question: Isn't our system about choice? When Fred shops for ice cream, he tries a pint with a name that implies health benefits. He is dismayed when he sees the listing of partially hydrogenated soybean oil -- an ingredient his health newsletter advises him to avoid. Have the ice-cream marketing people missed that medical research? In the bakery department he continues checking -- all but one brand of bread seems to list oils that are partially hydrogenated to make them solid at room temperature. The consumer information he reads indicates that oils are partially hydrogenated in the interest of shelf life. So he wonders, is it safe -- from the viewpoint of spoilage -- to buy the bread that just uses oil in its liquid form? And if shelf life is an issue with liquid fats, why is there no expiration date on cooking oils sold for home consumption? At the very least, it might increase sales. Now consider sugar. Fred, a potential candidate for Type 2 diabetes, has been advised to cut back on his consumption of juices -- especially those made with added sugar or fructose. He is pleased with the availability of the diet colas and wonders if teaming fruit flavored beverages with artificial sweeteners represents a missed opportunity. Fred hopes that happens soon now that his doctor suggests that he even curtail consumption of pure fruit juices because of the high natural sugar content. (Fred, now an avid reader of ingredient lists has since discovered that an 11.5 oz can of pure orange juice contains 41g of sugar, roughly the same amount as a can of Pepsi.) Fred's tendency toward Type 2 diabetes also leads him to restrict fat intake. Unfortunately he finds that low-fat canned or frozen prepared entrees often contain elevated levels of salt and/or sugar. Is it possible, Fred wonders, that the food scientists don't understand that someone watching fat intake might also be sensitive to the salt and sugar issues as well? Fred still enjoys tomato juice, thanks to the low salt versions that have become available. (A 13-oz can from some tomato processors contains nearly half of the recommended daily salt intake for normal adults.) The prognosis for the Freds of the world is mixed. On the one hand, pork producers have seen the use of lard in cookies, chips, and other foods decrease to the point of motivating research into nonfood uses. What researchers have found is that lard may be a healthier fuel for steam boilers than for human consumption. But food makers are still using other questionable ingredients and not offering an equal representation of alternatives. One certainty, Fred and his like better stay away from gourmet dining in New York. The Living Arts section of the New York Times (Aug. 30) reports that chefs at Gramercy Tavern, Petrossian Boutique and Caf, and Patria are among those that are taking a new look at how new and unusual forms of salt can add gustatory delight to (gasp) desserts.

John Teresko is Senior Technology Editor for IndustryWeek.

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