health concerns

Big Food Is Removing Salt and Sugar From Products — But They Aren’t Getting Healthier

No wonder they all still taste so good. Photo: James Leynse/Corbis via Getty Images

This is going to sound so unlike the global food conglomerates, but it seems they’ve found a way to produce ostensibly “healthier” products that aren’t actually any better for you. The trend for years has been reformulating packaged foods so that they appeal to the modern woke consumer — someone who definitely knows their stevia from their sucralose. That often involves reducing sodium, added sugars, and artificial ingredients (reductions that can then be conspicuously touted on labels!). Welcome in theory, but the problem with nixing so many critical ingredients is it leaves way less bar in your snack bar or whatever, and a new report by the USDA finds that Big Food is simply filling those gaps with … more bad fat.

The Washington Post looked at the report, and says there’s been “a surge in the amount of saturated fats” to counteract the reductions in sodium and sugar, tweaks that “have not made packaged foods more healthful overall.” To gauge the “uneven progress” Big Food has made, USDA researchers studied the nutrition contents of thousands of supposedly “healthier” cereals, snacks, yogurts, candies, and frozen meals, and they conclude that it’s “not clear” they’ve done anyone any good health-wise. For example, the number of overall calories stayed the exact same in cereals from 2008 to 2012 — which the USDA says is odd, considering that the amount of sugar and sodium both fell by about 5 percent. What happened was, cereal-makers added more saturated fat. About 15 percent more, to be precise.

Ultimately, their data offers three takeaways about packaged foods’ nutritional value: (1) Salt content has dropped in four of the five food categories it examined (frozen meals was the odd one out), (2) sugar content has either fallen or stayed the same in all five, and (3) saturated fat content, which is linked to heart disease, has increased a “statistically significant amount” in cereals, snacks, yogurts, and frozen meals.

Experts tell the Post that they aren’t surprised by the findings, but caution that it’s not entirely fair to pin all the blame on Big Food. Fat, salt, and sugar are the key components of taste, so if one drops suddenly, there is going to be “some juggling.” Michael Moss, a Pulitzer-winning journalist who literally wrote a book called Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, says the food industry typically only goes after one leg of the trinity at a time. “They could respond to one of those things pretty easily,” he says. “But all three is quite difficult.”

Big Food Is Swapping Salt and Sugar in Products for More Fat