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?
In the past the industry has typically responded to concerns about one of the three ingredients, so they'll put out a low-sugar product or low-fat or low-salt product, while maintaining or even increasing the other two. More people are becoming concerned about what they're putting in their mouth. This has put the food industry between a rock and a hard place. They are profit-making entities and they are hooked on profits as much as we are hooked on the taste.
And we keep buying the stuff.
To some extent the obesity crisis was clearly caused by the growth of mindless eating. And something else seems to have happened in the 1980s, too. At some point, it became acceptable to eat anywhere, any place, any time. And snacking became the norm. When I grew up, my parents would say don't snack, you'll ruin your appetite. That fell by the wayside and played into the hands of the food companies. The less you pay attention to what you put in your mouth, the less you're going to worry about what it is and the more apt you'll be to overeat.
The executives you met don't feed Lunchables to their kids. Is there a class thing going on?
I was struck by how many senior scientists I met who were not eating their own products. Some of them had had health issues that forced them to be more concerned about their diet.
You were able to taste healthier versions of some products – how were they?
I said to them: "You're saying you can't reduce the salt in your products. Show me why." At Kellogg we tasted versions they'd made just for me without salt. It was the most godawful experience you can imagine. Frozen waffles tasted like straw. And, worst of all, the cereal tasted metallic.
So we love the taste of salt. But it also covers up less than tasty food.
Salt is a miracle ingredient in many ways. It covers up off-notes, including meat, which has this problem: When it's reheated, the fat oxidizes and emits what the industry calls "warmed over flavour" (WOF). One of the cheapest, easiest cures to WOF is to add salt. At 10 cents a pound, the industry hardly has to think about the cost.
There's some recent research that kids respond to cartoon characters on packages of veggies – is that a good sign?
That speaks to the point of former Coca-Cola executive Jeffrey Dunn: What if we take all of the marketing and the scheming and the psychology that goes into selling junk food, what if we used those same techniques in selling carrots? Not as healthy things, but as junk foods. I think he has one of the smartest ideas out there. And he was the epitome of Coca-Cola. He was one of the most aggressive marketers. His nickname was Body Bags because he saw the war with Pepsi as nothing short of war. To have him, the best of the best marketing company in the world, try to turn things around, is just huge.
If you took away the health implications, being a scientist for these companies looks like a fun job. What invention did you find the coolest?
I loved the inventor of the Lunchables. He's a pure scientist. His intentions were great. The company was worried about sales, worried about jobs on the assembly line because people were increasingly concerned about the salt and fat in the Oscar Mayer meat. He also became hugely sympathetic to the plight of working parents who had this nightmarish hustle to get out of the house at 7 in the morning and at times needed something other than homemade lunches. So he developed Lunchables. And over time and after he left the project, the Lunchable morphed into these incredibly fat-, sugar-, salt-laden product that mimicked the fast-food industry. They had the hotdog Lunchables, the hamburger Lunchables, pancake Lunchables, pizza Lunchables.A number of these scientists, as our dependency on these convenient processed foods increased, became more and more concerned about how their products were used and playing in the broader issue of public health.
Is processed food the new cigarette?
I love the arc of the Philip Morris story - they became the largest food company in the U.S. by purchasing General Foods and then Kraft and held them to the mid-2000s or later. In the early phase they were pushing profits and sales like anybody might expect them to. Increasingly, the people at Philip Morris begin seeing obesity as a problem. Executives were saying to their food division, "Salt, sugar, fat are going to be as huge a problem for you in the context of obesity as nicotine was for us. You have to start thinking about that." This goes back a decade now.
The other link is the food companies have started selling their products overseas to new markets and so you see this export of the North American processed food phenomenon to emerging economies like Brazil and Mexico. You saw that with tobacco, the tobacco companies shifted their marketing overseas where there was less threat of regulation.
Are you a nightmare to shop with?
My kids might have one answer to that. I have two boys 8 and 13, but actually no, we've worked hard to engage them. My wife sort of arbitrarily set a limit of 5 g of sugar per serving of cereal. And they're into it. They hunt for the fine print. They find Cheerios, that have only one gram. Total. Special K. They may have to reach high or reach low to find them, because the stuff at eye level is just loaded. You've gotta empathize with them. Kids more than anybody are totally hardwired for sugar especially.
Do we stand a chance?
We do – if you view the grocery store as a minefield and you go in knowing all that the food companies throw at you, starting with the front of the package, and the placement in the store.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
By the numbers
Author Michael Moss gathered data on the value of the U.S. processed food industry and how much its citizens ingest annually.
- Value of the processed foods industry: $1-trillion in annual sales
- Economic cost of the U.S. diabetes crisis: nearly $300-billion
- Sugar-sweetened soda consumption per year: 32 gallons per person
- Other sweet drinks, including vitamin waters: 14 gallons
- Daily salt consumption per person: 8,500 milligrams
- Sodium in a roast turkey Hungry-Man dinner: 5,400 milligrams (more than double the daily recommendation//people should eat over the course of two days)
- Calories in potato chips: 160 an ounce
- Number of pounds gained in a year in a 2011 study attributed solely to the potato chip: 1.69