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April 17, 2014

“Salt, Sugar, Fat” author hopes book is call to action for everyone


Porter Prize winner Michael Moss

New York Times reporter Michael Moss came to see his investigation of the food processing industry, which resulted in the book “Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us,” as resembling nothing less than a true-crime tale.

“The reporting and the research that went into this was so much like being inside a detective story,” Moss told a packed William Pitt Union Ballroom April 8. He spoke after accepting the 2014 Graduate School of Public Health Porter Prize.

The book had its origins in 2009, when Moss’s editor suggested he look into a nationwide salmonella outbreak originating from a peanut processing factory in Georgia from which eight people died and 19,000 were sickened. Moss was hesitant at first, he admitted. Then he realized there was a larger story concerning the $1 trillion domestic food processing industry, “about which we really know very little.” The extent of the problems became clearer, he said, after his investigations took him next to Minnesota to check on an E. coli outbreak in a beef processing plant.

“This is an industry that had lost control over its own ingredients — the food chain had become so complicated,” he said.

Mansour Samadpour, head of IEH Laboratories in Washington, a large food-industry consulting laboratory, suggested Moss concentrate on examining food additives, particularly the salt added to meat. Moss added sugar and fat to form what he called “the unholy trinity on which the processed-food industry relies.”

“We’ve always known that eating too much of the foods I like to call ‘foods we hate to love’ can make us overweight and ill,” he said, noting that one in six adults in America is clinically obese, as are one in five kids ages 6-12, and that there are 20 million people with Type 2 diabetes and 79 million with pre-diabetes symptoms. What Moss discovered, which formed the center of his book, was a trove of documents that helped him identify the key food industry players involved in efforts to develop products with maximum appeal based on added salt, sugar and fat.

“The food giants have been acutely aware” of the power of these additives and their links to disease, he said. “It’s not as if I view the food industry as an evil empire,” he added; rather, the problem is the industry’s zeal “to make as much money as possible by selling as much product as possible.”

The power of the food industry is multiplied by its marketing techniques, which were learned from the tobacco industry, particularly after Philip Morris purchased Kraft in 1988, adding the company to its General Foods division. The move to target young people with junk food took flight especially in 1999 after Philip Morris acknowledged smoking’s links to disease — and warned their food company executives that they were about to face the same scrutiny and blame for obesity.

That same year, at Pillsbury headquarters in Minneapolis, top food industry executives gathered for the meeting that opens Moss’s book. Michael Mudd of Kraft told the executives that they should acknowledge publicly the connection between sugary drinks, junk food, obesity and disease and make healthier products. “He starts pleading with them to do the right thing — collectively,” Moss said, because Mudd knew that one company going down this path alone would not survive.

But the CEO of General Mills, Stephen Sanger, effectively killed any move toward such changes. We already are responsible to the consumer, Moss said Sanger told the gathering, offering lower-fat products and other alternatives if they demand it. “But you’ve got to remember, we are also responsible to shareholders,” he added in Moss’s paraphrase. The companies can’t give consumers less-appealing products and expect them to stick around as customers. Thus, the industry can’t afford to give people less salt, sugar and fat.

“That generally remains the attitude of the food industry today,” Moss told the Porter Prize audience.


bookMoss’s book also profiles the food inventor Howard Moskowitz, who developed the “bliss point” concept of ideal sweetness for Dr. Pepper, using 52 variations of sweetness tested on 3,000 groups of consumers to chart the exact point at which the soft drink would be just sweet enough without becoming cloying.

“The problem is not that they have engineered bliss points,” Moss said of food companies. “The problem is that they have marched around the [grocery] store adding sugar” to breads, pasta sauces, nonfat yogurts and many other products where consumers do not expect it or even realize it has been added, just to create cravings.

“It teaches us to expect sweetness in everything we eat,” he said. That’s toughest for kids to overcome. “When you drag their little butts over to the produce aisle … and they pick up other tastes” in vegetables — tastes that humans have savored forever, such as bitterness — it’s now harder for them to be convinced such foods are worth eating, he said. That’s why food giants fight for real-estate for their snacks, drinks and candy inside even the lowliest neighborhood convenience store, knowing that the choices kids make can last a lifetime. “When kids walk into corner stores with a little bit of their own money … they will become imprinted on that brand,” he said.

For Moss, the potato chip “is my food that I hate to love.” He knew there was a lot of salt on them: “The industry calls salt the flavor burst,” since it sends signals to the brain’s reward center that say, “Let’s eat more.” And he figured there was a lot of fat in potato chips, which works mostly to give you a pleasurable sensation when biting in.

“What I didn’t know is that the potato chip is loaded with sugar,” he said; its natural potato starch begins to turn to glucose the moment it makes contact with saliva.

Moss has investigated the psychobiology of the Doritos Locos Tacos from Taco Bell. “They are engineered to target tastebuds,” he marveled. That starts with the “dynamic contrast” of biting through a crispy shell to the “mouth feel” of the fatty insides. Then several acids work on the brain’s pleasure center, while “the lingering smell stimulates craving.” The food’s designers even have made certain that all these sensations don’t linger long enough to make you feel as if you’ve had enough via “sensory specific satiety.”

So what are the answers to all these food company efforts to make us want what we should not eat, Moss asked. He noted that an experiment with placing mirrors on shopping carts in Mexico, which forced shoppers to look at themselves as they wheeled their buggies down each grocery aisle, doubled produce sales.

He also acknowledged that healthy eating may need its own ad campaign. To see what that might be like, Moss enlisted ad agency Victors and Spoils, which also has done campaigns for Coca-Cola and other mammoth food companies, to create a fictional campaign that would give broccoli an image makeover. The ad agency decided that broccoli needed a rival, so it picked a fight with a currently trendy veggie, devising the slogan, “Now 43 percent less pretentious than kale” — “on the notion that kale would get mad,” Moss said, and devise a campaign of its own. Such efforts might increase both vegetables’ sales, as the ad war between Coke and Pepsi once accomplished.

“I hope that the book is not just a wake up call for the industry” but a call to action for everyone, he concluded. He suggested that families start early, teaching kids about how to make better food decisions.

The fight, he said, now is global: “American-style processed foods are marching around the world … and people over there are now starting to stand up and say, ‘We decide what to buy and what to eat and we don’t want to let these companies have control.’”

Public health Dean Donald S. Burke, in introducing Moss, noted that the Porter Prize is named for Milton Porter, late CEO of L.B. Foster Co., one of the first corporate leaders to institute a workplace wellness program. The prize has been awarded 19 other times with recipients ranking  from Bill Cosby and Fred Rogers to the discoverer of HIV.

—Marty Levine