sugary foods

Image from ZME Science

If there was any residual doubt that the time has come to take back our sense of taste from the food industry, this interview of Michael Moss, author of Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, will remove it.

The development of a food product involves extensive consumer surveys in search of that product’s “bliss point”—the “perfect amount of sweetness” that would guarantee we acquire a craving for the product. But this involves not only sweet products such as ice cream or cookies:

The food companies have marched around the grocery store adding sweetness, engineering bliss points to products that didn’t used to be sweet. So now bread has added sugar and a bliss point for sweetness. Yogurt can be as sweet as ice cream for some brands. And pasta sauce — my gosh, there are some brands with the equivalent of sugar from a couple of Oreo cookies in one half-cup serving.

And what this does, nutritionists say, is create this expectation in us that everything should be sweet.

This obviously has implications for the obesity crisis:

I was really struck by how many people inside the industry itself hold their industry totally accountable, totally culpable for this surge in obesity that we’ve had for the last 30 years now.

The damage is especially acute for children who naturally have a craving for sweet foods.

But adults have also been harmed and not only because of health consequences. To the extent we eat food manufactured by the food industry, we have all been manipulated to prefer sweetened foods that lack subtlety and mask the incredible variety of flavors contained in unprocessed food. We no longer own our capacity to taste having traded it in for convenience and low prices.

Happily thanks to the taste revolution that has swept across the U.S. over the past few decades, we are beginning to take ownership of this important dimension of life. Industrial food companies are suffering from declining sales:

Earlier this year, almost all of them stood before investors and reported dismal earnings. And the most forthright among the heads of the food companies attributed that decline to consumers caring more and more about what they put in their bodies, wanting to eat healthier, and acting on those decisions by changing their purchasing habits, which is really hitting the food giants hard.

As I argue in American Foodie, industrial food will probably always be part of our food supply given the production and distribution efficiencies it creates. But industrial food should not exercise the kind of control over our health and pleasure that it has  enjoyed in the past.

The only way out is for each of us to take more responsibility for what we consume—and that means paying more attention to taste.