Most of us like to pretend we give the junk food aisles of the grocery store a wide berth. But put us in front of a gooey bowl of Kraft dinner or open a bag of Frito-Lays, and some kind of Pavlovian impulse takes over. We can’t resist. In a chilling new exposé of the science and marketing behind the biggest North American food brands, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning author Michael Moss unveils exactly how products are engineered to have just the right levels of sugar, salt and fat to be downright addictive.
Moss is quick to admit he’s no food saint. While he was working on Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, he frequently indulged in his favourite: the mighty potato chip. “I know enough to limit myself, but just listening to these scientists talk about their formulations caused me to drool,” he says. What he learned was that, thanks to what he calls the “unholy trinity” of salt, fat and, yes, sugar, researchers have found that chips are the single biggest contributor to weight gain over time, more than any other food.
Moss looks at how chips and their processed cohort came to be complicit in North America’s battles with obesity, diabetes and heart disease – by tapping into cravings we didn’t know we had. We spoke to him from his desk at The New York Times.
Are we hardwired to love sugar, salt, fat?
Sugar is the most craveable. We have 10,000 taste buds and they’re all wired for the sweet taste and it goes directly, fast, into your brain. Kids are born liking sweet tastes. Fat is in some ways even more powerful. It has twice the calories as sugar and it’s in all kinds of forms and it’s deceptive to the brain. We’re not born liking salt. We develop a taste for it at about age six months. There have been recent studies that show that the food industry is hugely responsible for affecting our cravings for salt.
I’ve heard Canadians like it salty.
The food giants want to hit the “bliss point” – the amount of salt, sugar or fat that is just the right amount to send you over the moon. And when they hit it, the products fly off the shelves. They know that people have different bliss points geographically. There was a senior scientist at the old company General Foods, which morphed into Kraft some years ago. He was in China marketing Tang and as he moved south in the country he noticed people wanted sweeter and sweeter versions. It still remains a mystery why, but you often see people closer to the middle latitudes liking more sugar.
Looking to government for help in regulating food is a complicated matter.
It’s a $1-trillion industry. I have chapters in the book on the complicity on the part of the Department of Agriculture in promoting increased consumption of both cheese and red meat because of the agency’s commitment and mission to help the agricultural industry. Cheese is now the single largest source of saturated fat in the American diet. Our consumption has tripled to as much as 33 pounds a year.
You open the book with a mafia-esque scene in which the heads of all the major food companies met in 1999 to discuss their role in the looming obesity epidemic. What happened?
It was back when the obesity crisis was growing and there was this moment of opportunity when the industry could have made a decision. What they were being urged to do was collectively address and embrace things that could help fight the obesity crisis. The collective part is huge because as things played out, it became clear that when companies acted on their own, they faced huge competition from other companies and huge pressure from Wall Street. The other thing that struck me was that the people pleading with CEOs were their own senior people. I saw that as one of those stunning moments in the industry when it’s at a crossroads making a critical decision.
Are they at a crossroads again?