In his Pulitzer Prize-winning 2009 expose on pathogens in America's meat, New York Times investigative reporter Michael Moss described in chilling detail the dangers of bacteria in the American meat supply.
But in the course of interviewing food experts for that series, Moss came to believe there were even more insidious elements in our food — ones put there intentionally. They're the salt, sugar and fat that serve as the lifeblood of the processed food industry and the subjects of his new book.
In "Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us," Moss chronicles the food industry's headlong race to "win" by making our meals cheaper, yummier and more convenient than ever. But he also examines how those efforts have affected our eating habits, health and the national budget.
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In this rich narrative, the longtime journalist layers histories of Lunchables, Cheez Whiz, Jell-O pudding, Kool-Aid, Dr Pepper, Coke and Oreos with biographies of the people who spent their careers creating and marketing them. He spends days with food scientists who study why we like certain foods and flavors. Some have pinpointed just how sweet or salty foods should be to hook the most consumers — and how to target certain racial groups.
Moss notes that taxpayer dollars help fund the lab that discovered — and shared with Flamin' Hot Cheetos maker Frito-Lay — that "blacks (particularly black adolescents) displayed the greatest preference for a high concentration of salt," according an internal 1980 Frito-Lay memo he quotes in the book.
While these revelations can be unappetizing, the book's insider access to former executives — including some remorseful ones — is likely to keep readers (especially parents) hungry for more nuggets from inside the belly of the beast.
We recently chatted with the author about the experience. Here is an edited transcript.
Q: How did you get so many former food executives and scientists to spill the beans?
A: There are documents from Kraft and General Foods that identified to me the key most important players, and I contacted them. Many opened up, not always eagerly, but willingly, to help me tell the full story.
These interviews also … showed me that many of these companies are peopled with pure scientists who have a conscience and are well meaning. But this is America, and so these companies' primary mission is to sell items, in this case food. And they are deeply beholden to Wall Street. I think that's critical to understand, especially for people who want to change food policy. On one level no one can expect these companies to do anything but what they're doing, which is to make the most alluring, best tasting and attractive food as possible — as well as inexpensive and convenient.
For so many years so much of their effort went into getting people to eat as much of their products as possible. So the whole notion of cutting back or asking if they've gone too far is a staggering thought given its long, hard drive to do nothing but increase sales.
(For many of the product makers) these products were their children they helped develop. And while they have problems with obesity, it's still hard for them emotionally to wrestle with their own role in creating products.
Q: Has your research changed your eating/shopping habits?
A: When we let our kids choose their cereals we set a 5-gram-of-sugar limit per serving. It's a little arbitrary, but it's something. I've also introduced oatmeal for breakfast because it's not that hard to throw some oats in a pan of water while I'm making my coffee and packing lunches in the morning. This way we can control the amount of sugar and we can add some fresh fruit.
Also remembering what my mom taught me, we try to slow down when we eat. The whole concept of avoiding mindless eating (that) people have hit upon is really just great common sense. One of the biggest causes of obesity came about in the '80s when almost overnight it became acceptable to eat anything anywhere anytime, and all those adages about avoiding snacking fell by the wayside. So we also try to focus on family meals and cooking and reading labels.
People can also avoid the middle aisles at the grocery store with the fattiest and sugaryiest foods, and look high and look low where the healthier products tend to be stocked on shelves. You can also look for differences between products. I'm a chip fanatic, and the other day I found a chip with 45 milligrams of sodium rather than 200, and they tasted great.
Q: You note that our individual salt preferences are largely learned but that processed foods need them for all sorts of flavor masking and technical functions.
A: Yes, our addiction to salt can be easily undone, a lot more than the industry's addiction to salt. When Kellogg let me taste special versions of its Cheez-Its without salt, we gagged and coughed. That was really illuminating.
But there is some guidance on that in England, which has, for the past few years, had a salt-reduction initiative. Now when the British go overseas, they often come back complaining that the (foreign) food is too salty. So they are an example that you can actually lower a population's threshold for salty food. They still like it, but they just need less. That said, obesity is still surging there.
So as public whims come and go fueled in no small part by bad diet books, the companies respond, often reducing one ingredient but balancing it out by adding others because they can't make food that doesn't taste fabulous. That's the bottom line.
Q: What would it take for industry to make real changes?
A: In the long run it's going to take government intervention because no one can hope that the food companies are going to get together and do it all at once. As the Kraft story shows, if any one company unilaterally starts improving the health profile of its products, their competitors will eat them alive and lure people down the aisle to the full-fat, full-sugar, full-salt versions of the same foods.
One of the things going forward that is hopeful is this notion of incrementally dialing back on salt, sugar and fat so that people don't notice and thus reshaping the American palate in the reverse way they have been shaping it for decades. But the prospect of getting all the companies to do it is daunting.
Q: Did government's role in the creation of this food environment surprise you?
A: I was stunned by the inherent conflict of interest of the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture), for instance, whose mission includes boosting agricultural industry sales as well as protecting consumers (by creating dietary guidelines and overseeing school lunch rules). And so nutritionally you have an imbalance. You have the tiny Food and Nutrition Service coming up with the food plate (http://www.choosemyplate.gov) and encouraging people, in some instances, to eat less cheesy pizza. But then having another (unit) with several hundreds of millions of industry dollars overseen by the USDA that go into marketing and encouraging people, for example, to eat more cheese through the Checkoff program.
Q: Is this an advocacy book?
A: It is in the way that information is power, and I am hoping that readers will be able to use this information to level the playing field when they shop. Ultimately we're in the driver's seat. We decide how much to buy and what to eat, and that's a huge amount of power. There are a few tricks you can use, and the more you know about processed foods, the more empowered you are to keep control over your diet. And that's the amount of advocacy: giving people the information they can really use.
Q: What surprised you most?
A: On a personal level it was how many food-company executives I met (who) are health conscious and don't eat their own products, especially when they get injured. A senior scientist at Kraft blew out his knee and as a strategy stopped consuming any calories in drink form because he was aware of the recent science saying liquid calories are riskier than solid calories because the brain doesn't seem to register them as much. He has also stopped eating salty chips because he was among the many of us who cannot stop at one tiny serving.
Q: Have you seen any legislation that has the potential to create a healthier food environment?
A: Nothing that's been proposed so far is an ideal solution, including Mayor Michael Bloomberg's ban on supersized sodas in New York. Everything is so imperfect (that) it's hard for me to point to one initiative.
One of the key things will be finding a way to make fresh foods and vegetables more affordable and finding a way to market them to people in the same cunning ways that processed food companies market their products. One of the most hopeful things in the book to me was the former Coca-Cola executive president who left the company and went to a carrot farm and came up with ways he (could) take the playbook of the processed food industry and use that to sell carrots. That could totally change the game.
Monica Eng is a Chicago Tribune watchdog reporter who focuses on food and consumer issues.
"Salt Sugar Fat"
By Michael Moss, Random House, 446 pages, $28Copyright © 2015, CT Now