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Book Review: Stuffed: An Insider’s Look at Who’s (Really) Making America Fat

Posted Apr 23 2009 12:39am

I’d seen Stuffed: An Insider’s Look at Who’s (Really) Making America Fat at the library several times before I picked it up. Honestly, I expected a repeat of the same old, same old: fast food and sugary snacks make people fat and everyone should switch to a diet composed of hand-picked organic veggies, meat that comes from animals which have never left the idyllic farm for feed lots and homemade sweets in extreme moderation. *Yawn*

When I finally checked it out though, I was pleasantly surprised even though it does not start off promisingly. Cardello (the author) worked in food marketing for years, was, by his own account, quite good at it and didn’t think much about what the products he was helping to push could be doing to people’s health. Then he had a health scare (I can’t remember what it was and the book is back at the library) but he did say a few woo-ish things about naturopaths and toxins that had me thinking the book was going to go into crystal power territory. It never does though so, if you decide to read it, be warned and just plod through the opening.

The good:

Cardello’s strength throughout the book is his experience in the food industry. Both for the insider’s view it gives him and for the fact that he resists demonizing the big companies that control so much of our food supply. Some of the most interesting information is the lengths to which companies go to in order to make us want their products. From paying for the best spots in supermarkets (4 inches above and below 5′6″- the average height of a woman), to spending literally hundreds of millions of dollars for tv, radio and print advertising, every decision from packaging to placement to mouthfeel is constantly tested in order to grab and keep your attention. And it absolutely works.

The book also tries to introduce some of the players in the food and restaurant industry whose decisions have the most effect of what we eat. The explanation of who buys cooking oil (which we use at the amazing rate of 25 billion pounds per year) for restaurants and why they are so reluctant to take chances on new product until, like with the recent trans-fat bans, their hand is forced was particularly interesting.

Cardello also does a wonderful job of connecting the decisions of the food and restaurant industries with how we eat. Combo meals are a great example of something that increases profit for the restaurant while giving people the sense that they’ve just gotten a great deal, but which might not be the best idea for our health. Offering combo meals increases both the amount of money spent by individuals and the amount eaten since if you don’t offer combo meals, people tend to skip at least one part of the fast food standard meal of fries, sandwich and soda.

The most important thing I think he manages though is to inject a good dose of practicality into the discussion of food and health. We’re not going to become a society where people have the time to cook elaborate and healthy meals every night nor are people’s tastes suddenly going to shift from the high-fat, high-sugar fare to what we think of as health food. Cardello argues that this isn’t necessary for improving the health and nutrition of the nation. Much of our problem, he argues, is portion sizes and unhealthy ingredients. He tells the story of an attempt to improve the lunches of a group of schoolchildren which failed spectacularly because taking away the chicken nuggets and replacing their traditional french fries with sweet potato fries resulted in the kids eating less lunch and making up for it with vending machine snacks and sodas.

As part of his practical approach, Cardello argues that profit can be a great motivator for the food industry to create healthier options. Things like the suddenly ubiquitous 100 calories snack packs can increase profit per calorie (although he does warn that these ideas won’t work if many people are priced out of affording them as is the case with the woefully overpriced snack packs.) A better example he gives involves the presence of soda companies in schools. A school district in Minnesota didn’t want kids drinking soda all day, but didn’t want to give up the revenue from the drink company. Working with the drink company, the school district installed many more vending machines that only sold water. Soda machines were turned off except for after school and the only drink allowed in classes was water. Kids started drinking lots of water, the company made more money from the school district and the, unfortunately, desperately needed money from the soda company stayed in the school district.

The best chapter in the book, imo, is the one contrasting the heads of the Center for science in the Public interest and the Center for Consumer Freedom. Cardello is brilliant at poking holes in each of these worldviews (one that wants lots of government intervention into our food and another that wants practically none.) Seriously, if nothing else, go to the library and read just this chapter (chapter 8, I think.)

The less good:

Cardello mixes up what might improve people’s health with what might cause people to lose weight. Replacing typical frying oils with heart-healthier fats (like purified omega-3s) might improve health, but it certainly won’t change the calorie content of fried foods. Likewise, having people eat slightly less of not-so-healthy foods might not really do much overall to improve people’s health even if it does lower weight.

There’s not a lot of consideration for factors outside of weight and heart-health. The bottled water story is good from the perspective of kids drinking less sugar, but bad in terms of environmental effects. Likewise, part of the move towards less-processed food is about sustainability which he ignores.

Cardello argues that food companies need to see a profit in moving towards healthier options and that the government shouldn’t step in and start legislating (he was definitely against the trans-fat bans) but in doing so he ignores the food companies’ histories of jumping on health fads of dubious origin in order to make money. The low-fat food craze was hugely profitable for food companies (as was the low-carb trend) but neither was particularly good for our health and neither had any effect on the our weights. Now, we have highly processed cereals claiming to be whole grain and products showing up touting their inclusion of omega-3 fats despite the fact that these items are generally not any healthier than they’ve ever been. The problem with allowing profit motive to be the main motivation in changing the way we eat is that it’ll still win over health even when science doesn’t support the claims.

Overall, the book is worth a read. I don’t think it has all the answers by any means, but it does work at finding some practical answers. If nothing else, the information on the inner workings of the food industry make fascinating dinner party conversation - if I ever went to dinner parties.

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