Below is a great read on how our society is addicted to processed foods.
The article appeared in The New York Times Blog
Behind the Cover Story: Michael Moss on Addictive Foods and What He Eats for Breakfast
Tony Cenicola/The New York Times Michael Moss
Michael Moss, a Pulitzer Prize–winning investigative reporter for The Times, wrote this week’s cover article on the processed-food industry. The article is adapted from his book, “Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us,” which will be published this month.
What first brought your attention to this topic?
I had been writing for the paper about contaminants in food — like salmonella in peanuts and E. coli in hamburger — and the industry scientists I met in the course of reporting said to me, “Michael, as tragic as these E. coli cases are, if you want to see something that makes a lot more people sick, look at the stuff the food giants are adding intentionally to their products.” They were mostly involved in meat production, so they were alarmed by enormous quantities of salt added to processed meats. As I continued reporting, it became clear that salt, fat and sugar together formed the holy grail for the processed-food industry. We all knew that these were in heavy use, but one of the things I was curious about was how the industry was wrestling with the issue. The whole idea was to go inside the industry and see how it was dealing with reports of enormous levels of obesity and diabetes. I was stunned by how many senior officials had over the years become alarmed about the effects of these products. Certainly having thousands of pages of insider documents helped get people to talk, but I was surprised how many were willing to tell the story. What a lot of them had created in the ’80s had meanwhile morphed into something else, something more problematic.
And that change in the food industry carries a whiff of conspiracy in your story.
Well, these are companies after all. Their main purpose is to make money. If they elevate health concerns to the top of their agenda, Wall Street and their competitors are waiting to eat them alive. As I describe in the book, some of the biggest companies did choose to do the right thing by consumer health at various points. But these were unilateral moves, and they were beaten by competitors.
Do you see the only way forward as promoting regulations, or is an agreement among food giants possible?
It’s hard to disagree with the growing number of people who see government regulation as the way to deal with this. And adjusting regulations to give other products, like fruits and vegetables, a more even playing field with products, like corn, that are used in processed foods could be another step. But the $1 trillion a year food industry and its lobby still dominates the Department of Agriculture. Still, I was struck by the former C.E.O. of Philip Morris saying that he’s no friend of government regulation but that what you are seeing in the processed-food industry is that there is no way any one company can make tremendous progress. The industry collectively won’t decide to do it, and at a minimum government regulation would give these industries cover from the huge pressure they have from Wall Street to keep their profits up.
You report that a big concern among food-industry heads was to keep processed food from being compared to cigarettes. But if processed foods became as maligned as cigarettes have, might that be the best thing from a public-health standpoint?
Conceivably. Remember that Philip Morris was the only cigarette company to embrace government regulation as a means of self-preservation. They were worried about losing everything. But at that moment they expanded into noncigarette products. The other grain of salt with the Philip Morris strategy is that it embraced more regulation in this country as it was expanding its market abroad. And in the last decade the processed-food industry is spending more time exporting and marketing these foods abroad, and it is now a problem that the world must deal with. Part of it is the saturation of the American market but also its increasing fears here. But usually the industry has been flexible in its responses to consumer concerns. Sugar was an issue in the ’80s, so you would see low-sugar products; fat was an issue in the ’90s, so you’d see low-fat products. Now salt is more of an issue. But the low-fat products and low-salt products are high in sugar, and the low-sugar products are high in fat. They’ll dial down one ingredient but dial up the others. From the companies’ perspective it is understandable: they want to make as popular a product as possible. But collectively the whole industry is responsible for our heightened collective craving.
Aren’t appetites for salt, sugar and fat natural human cravings?
Every one of our 10,000 taste buds is wired for sugar. But we aren’t born liking salt — we develop a taste for it at about 6 months. There has been some recent science indicating that our liking for salt and our craving is hugely dependent on our exposure to processed foods. Scientists at the Monell Center in Philadelphia, which is partly financed by the food industry, recently did a study where they dumped children into two categories, those who were exposed to processed foods and those who weren’t, starting at 6 months. The first category, by the time they were in preschool, were practically licking the salt shakers. Companies are experimenting with replacing sodium chloride with potassium chloride, because most of the health problems come from sodium. It works for some products, but if you diminish the amount of sodium, people want sugar and fat instead. In Britain, the country as a whole has managed to dial down doses of salt, and that may help address high blood pressure, but obesity continues to rise.
After working on this book, do you live in some pristine otherworld of quinoa and salad?
My family is dependent on processed foods. We have two boys, ages 8 and 13. My wife, Eve, and I both work outside the home. There’s no way with our lifestyle that we can lose all of that dependency. That said, Eve arbitrarily set a limit on the kids of five grams of sugar in cereal — even before I started reporting on the subject. Oatmeal is easy to make, but maybe kids don’t want it. Five grams still leaves choices like basic Cheerios and Total. And it gives them choice and engages them in a discussion. The boys may have to reach low, or I may have to reach high to get the cereal, because Fruit Loops are displayed at eye-level. Eve pulled five grams out of thin air. There is no federal guideline for sugar. It is the one big thing missing from nutrition facts because the F.D.A. has declined to set a number.
Did reporting on this topic change your habits at all?
Yes, to a certain extent. It turns out convenience foods are not all that convenient. Oatmeal, I mentioned, is easy, and making tomato sauce for pasta has about two steps. But as a culture, we have lost the will but also the knowledge to make these. One reason that we eat processed foods is the decline of home economics. Restarting home economics classes is one of the key things we could do to get this issue moving.
What has the response been like to your article so far?
I haven’t had time to go through the thousand-plus comments yet. I’ve been responding to e-mails, from people saying their families are struggling with diet issues and that having the information is empowering for them, but also from company executives. I got calls from doctors saying if you want to see something really deplorable, look at hospital cafeteria food. People from the White House got in touch, to talk to me but also to get in contact with Jeff Dunn, the Coca-Cola former president who is now trying to market baby carrots as junk food. They are interested in his strategies. The response has been enormous.
This post has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: February 25, 2013
An earlier version of this post misstated the given name of the former president of Coca-Cola North America. He is Jeff Dunn, not John.