Michael Moss: Big Food Began Co-Opting American Organizations in the 1950’s

General Foods Tang Drink Mix Label – 1950’s (posted by Jason Liebig)

I’m reading Salt Sugar Fat by Michael Moss (which is fantastic and I highly recommend it to everyone) and came across this gem in the “Sugar” section.  It struck me as parallel to what we are going through today, in terms of co-optation by Big Food/Big Soda:

Moss describes how in the mid-1950’s, General Foods determinedly infiltrated the American Home Economics Association, which was, at the time, dedicated to teaching healthy, home cooking from scratch.  In contrast, General Foods (the food mega-corporation of the time) was promoting newfangled processed (“convenience”) foods like cake mixes, Stove Top Stuffing, Bisquick, Minute Rice, Tang, Jell-O and Post cereals. In order to increase sales and undermine the teachings of the home economics instructors of that era:

            …the processed food industry had to come up with another, more insidious strategy.  Like the Hoover-era FBI pursuing its enemies list, the industry infiltrated the association of home economics teachers. This operation started with money and advertising, an archive of the association’s journal reveals.  In 1957 alone, General Foods funneled $288,250 into the grants and fellowship program of the home economics association, winning the gratitude of a generation of teachers. The association then devoted a special section of its journal to publicizing all the convenient products, from Stove Top Stuffing to nine-serving cake mixes.  And General Foods and other manufacturers took out big ads for the hospitality booths they set up at the association fairs. 

            Then the food industry began sending people to further reshape the association to its own designs.  It sponsored candidates for the organization’s top leadership posts, candidates who would bring a decidedly pro-industrial view to home economics…

Needless to say, this was the beginning of the end of traditional cooking lessons in home economics.  The power of Big Food and its processed convenience products forever changed the eating habits of Americans.  And Big Food’s donations/infiltration clearly increased its profits and set it on course to completely control what Americans eat on a daily basis.

Big Food/Big Soda continue to donate large sums of money to health and medical organizations, civil rights groups, community organizations and other prominent groups in 2013. Many believe that true charitable giving is hardly the reason these donations are made.  While reading this section in Salt Sugar Fat, I couldn’t help but see the parallels to today’s Big Food/Big Soda donation strategy. If this type of marketing strategy has worked so well since at least the 1950’s, why would the food industry ever change its tactics?

The American public, bamboozled by Big Food’s steady drumbeat of “personal responsibility” messaging, needs to wake up to the level of manipulation that the processed/junk food industry has engaged in for the past 60+ years.  We are not overweight and suffering from an epidemic of chronic disease because we suddenly became weak-willed mid 20th century .  Americans, and the rest of the world, are sitting ducks —  manipulated daily by a deep-pocketed, unregulated, strategic campaign by the food and beverage industry to silence critics, flood the airwaves/our communities with positive messages about unhealthy foods, and crowd out healthier alternatives.

Why hasn’t our government protected us?

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