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Salt, Sugar, Fat & CSR: When Food Companies Choose Profit Over Responsibility

| Friday March 8th, 2013 | 4 Comments

Salt Sugar FatEarlier this week Gallup released the latest data on the obesity rate in the U.S., showing that the national obesity rate remained steady at 26.2 percent in 2012, compared with 26.1 percent in 2011, but is still higher than the 2008 average of 25.5 percent.

So who is to be blamed the U.S. obesity epidemic portrayed in these figures? Is it the public that doesn’t take good care of its health, the government that doesn’t do a good job in regulating the food we consume or the food industry that sells us this food? All of the above would probably be a good answer, yet a new book makes the case that one party might bear a greater share of the blame: the food industry.

In his new book, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Michael Moss gets us inside the world of processed and packaged foods, shedding light on “a conscious effort – taking place in labs and marketing meetings and grocery-store aisles – to get people hooked on foods that are convenient and inexpensive.”

The vast materials published so far in relation with the book, including a cover story of Moss in the New York Times Magazine and an interview with him on NPR’s Fresh Air, a lot of food for thought about the CSR angle of this story. No matter how you look it, this story is not just about salt, sugar and fat, but also about corporate responsibility, or more accurately about the lack of it.

One of the main issues that come up here at TriplePundit is the limits of responsibility – where do you draw the line between corporate responsibility and personal responsibility? It was maybe best echoed in the differences that came up in a meeting of food companies’ executives in April 1999 to discuss the growing public health concerns over the obesity epidemic and the role packaged and processed foods were playing in it.

Two different approaches on responsibility were presented in this meeting. On one side you had Michael Mudd, then VP at Kraft. “We are saying that the industry should make a sincere effort to be part of the solution, and that by doing so, we can help to defuse the criticism that’s building against us,” he told his peers.

On the other side you had Stephen Sanger, then Chairman and CEO of General Mills, who said that General Mills acted responsibly to both the public and shareholders by offering products to satisfy dieters and other concerned shoppers, from low sugar to added whole grains. “Bottom line being, though, that we need to ensure that our products taste good, because our accountability is also to our shareholders. And there’s no way we could start down-formulating the usage of salt, sugar, fat if the end result is going to be something that people do not want to eat.”

Which approach won eventually that night? Not surprisingly it was the latter. You might wonder what’s wrong with that – after all, this is a free market where consumers are provided with various options, some healthier, some not as much, and they can make their choices based on their own judgment.

The problem is that this is not a neutral marketplace where the food companies have no control or impact on what the consumers want. On the contrary – as Moss shows, companies have a great ability to impact our decisions and they fully take advantage of it, utilizing research and marketing “to make the most convenient, the most long-lasting the least cost food they could” to meet their ultimate goal – profit maximization.

One example is the ‘bliss point’ – Moss explains in detail how food companies have been scientifically tweaking ratios of salt, sugar and fat to optimize consumer bliss. “Food inventors and scientists spend a huge amount of time formulating the perfect amount of sugar that will send us over the moon, and send products flying off the shelves. It is the process they’ve engineered that struck me as really stunning,” he told Time Magazine.

Moss shows how the food industry became very good in product optimization, taking into account every possible variable that can be altered to increase product sales, except one – consumers’ health. What companies basically did and still do is to exploit our vulnerabilities when it comes to sugar, fat and salt. It is certainly legal, but is it responsible? I doubt. Why can’t companies make other choices, investing all of this R&D money into formulating products that are tasty but also healthy?

And it doesn’t end just with the formulation of products. Moss presents many examples of marketing choices companies made to increase the likeability of some of their less healthy products, like when Kellogg described its Frosted Mini-Wheats as “brain food,” or when Kraft targeted kids with Saturday-morning cartoons, making the case that Lunchables is a great way to exercise their independence (“All day, you gotta do what they say. But lunchtime is all yours.”)

Eventually this is about the choices consumers make, but these choices are directly connected to the choices companies make. And when food companies choose to be less responsible to increase sales without considering the long-term health impacts of their formulating and marketing decisions, it makes it much harder for consumers to do the right thing.

The good news is that this won’t be for long – even the largest food companies can’t have the cake and eat it forever. Eventually stakeholders will start taking control, defining the limits of responsibility for the companies rather than leaving it for the companies themselves.

[Image credit: Random House, Flickr Creative Commons]

Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris and an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Business School, CUNY SPS and Parsons the New School for Design, teaching courses in green business, sustainable design and new product development. You can follow Raz on Twitter.


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  • JBTascam

    OMG – Companies are selling products people want! And they’re using ingredients that make them taste good! “Puritanism – The fear that someone, somewhere, is enjoying themselves!”

    • Lonnie

      I guess under that logic you would argue that cigarette companies should’ve continued to operate as is– killing people and overburdening our healthcare system–without government intervention. No warning labels, no consumer education.

      • Marianne

        Why stop there? People want drugs and prostitution too – does that mean it’s ok to sell, should be legal and someone should provide it to them?

      • JBTascam

        Product liability law fixes the Cigarette issue. Each consumer who is not informed of the problems of smoking as a result of poorly advertised or suppressed risks takes the company to court and is paid a fair compensation for their injury. THAT is the legal standard I would use for any product, from tobacco to hemp to heroin to cocaine to oxycontin to phen-phen.