Although investigative reporter Michael Moss didn't examine genetically modified foods in his monumental study of the processed food industry - "I paid attention to salt, sugar and fat because the science is stronger at this point," he says - his findings pertaining to nutritional labeling suggest GMO labels could prove less effective than I-522 backers would hope.
"Labels are so tricky for consumers," says Moss, author of the newly-released Salt, Sugar, Fat: How The Food Giants Hooked Us. "We go into a grocery store and see a big label saying low-fat, but the food's loaded with sugar."
According to Moss, who's speaking tonight at Town Hall, food companies are forever adjusting the amount of salt, sugar and fat in their products so they can cultivate dangerous dependencies. Given unprecedented access to the masterminds behind the $1 trillion processed food industry, Moss was able to reconstruct how companies such as Kraft and Coca-Cola used brain scans and sophisticated chemistry to methodically engineer addictive snacks, many of which are sold with legal-but-misleading labels.
Moss cites yogurt as an example of an unhealthy dessert promoted as a wholesome breakfast.
"(Yoplait) now had twice as much sugar per serving as Lucky Charms, the company's cloyingly sweet, marshmallow-filled cereal," Moss writes. "And yet, because of yogurt's well-tended image as a wholesome, life-giving snack, sales of Yoplait were soaring."
Yoplait and other brands "glommed on to fruit for its chimera of health," Moss says. Producers could honestly claim on their packages that the foods within contained fruit, confident that few shoppers would check the back label to learn the referenced fruit was pear juice concentrate - and that even fewer would understand that pear juice concentrate is essentially table sugar.
"Companies are really good at using labeling to their advantage," Moss says.
Although food companies are required to disclose calorie, fat and sodium counts, they're not required to list sugar as a percentage of a recommended daily maximum. Nor are they forced to distinguish natural sugars from added sugars. Producers can also manipulate the totals by calculating very small serving sizes.
In certain instances, though, food companies have rejiggered serving sizes to reflect the realities of how much people eat. While Moss documented plenty of behavior that most consumers would consider devious, he stresses many industry insiders were extraordinarily troubled by their companies' contribution to the national obesity crisis.
"I refrained from painting a picture of a monster, because I think it's important to see them as companies doing what companies do," he says.
Still, he acknowledges the industry's dedication to profitability precludes saintliness, which is why its leaders sometimes welcome the cover of government regulation and public outcry.
"Companies seem to respond to forceful customer demand," he says.