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The Weaponizing of Salt, Sugar and Fat: The Secrets of How Big Food Got Us Hooked on Junk

Michael Moss talks about his new book, "Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us."

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What this did, though, mean to the companies, though, was—was what I write about in the book, which, I have to tell you, Amy, was a bit of a detective story. I managed to come across a trove of internal documents that enabled me to get insiders to talk. And when they did, what it showed was that salt, sugar, fat are the three pillars, the Holy Grail, if you will, on which the food industry survives. And through their research, they know that when they hit the perfect amounts of each of those ingredients, they’ll send us over the moon, products will fly off the shelves, we’ll eat more, we’ll buy more—and being companies, of course, that they will make more money.

AMY GOODMAN: Name names, and talk about examples of the weaponizing of salt, sugar and fat.

MICHAEL MOSS: One of the legendary senior scientists for the food industry, Howard Moskowitz, walked me through his creation recently of a new soda for Dr. Pepper, a new flavor line. And it was amazing how much effort went into that—you know, a regression analysis, high mathematics. He would take dozens and dozens of formulas, just slightly altered, to find what he calls the "bliss point" for sweetness in the sugar. And you can do this own experiment at home. Take a cup of coffee, keep adding sugar until you reach the point that you like it the most, and then when you add more sugar, you actually like it less. Well, the food industry knows that, and they spend huge amounts of effort finding the perfect spot, not just for sugar, but for fat and salt, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Frito-Lay had scientist Robert I-San [Lin].

MICHAEL MOSS: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Talks about people getting addicted to salt.

MICHAEL MOSS: Yes. He was a wonderful, brilliant scientist who worked—went to work for Frito-Lay in the late ’70s, when salt became an issue in Washington, and the FDA started holding hearings looking at whether potentially it should regulate salt and not consider it inherently safe. Dr. Lin began pushing Frito-Lay to cut back on salt in its own products, for economic reasons. He thought it would position the company really well. And he left Frito-Lay. And years later, when I met him and we went through the documents that he saved from his days at Frito-Lay, it was just amazing to sit down with him at his dining room table and listen to his regrets at not having been able to have done more way back in the ’70s and early ’80s.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the tobacco industry’s effect on the food industry, Michael Moss.

MICHAEL MOSS: I love this part of the story, because it’s really surprising. Philip Morris became the largest food manufacturer in the United States starting in the late '80s, when it acquired General Foods and then Kraft. And as you can imagine, for the first decade of that ownership, it pushed the food managers to do everything they could to sell their products. But starting in the late ’90s, when Philip Morris came under increasing pressure for nicotine and tobacco—and it was the first tobacco company to acknowledge or, rather, to accept the idea of government regulation—the Philip Morris officials turned to their food people and said, "You guys" — and this is private, of course — "You guys are going to face the same issue we're facing over nicotine with salt, sugar, fat and obesity." And they began nudging their food managers to start thinking about ways to ease back on their dependence on those three ingredients.

 
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