The Weaponizing of Salt, Sugar and Fat: The Secrets of How Big Food Got Us Hooked on Junk
AMY GOODMAN: We spend the rest of the hour going deep inside the "processed-food-industrial complex," beginning with the "The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food." That was the cover story in the recent New York Times Magazine that examined how food companies have known for decades that salt, sugar and fat are not good for us in the quantities American’s consume them, and yet every year they convince most of us to ingest about twice the recommended amount of salt, 70 pounds of sugar—22 teaspoons a day. Then, there’s the fat. Well, New York Times reporter Michael Moss explains how one of the most prevalent fat delivery methods is cheese.
MICHAEL MOSS: Every year, the average American eats as much as 33 pounds of cheese. That’s up to 60,000 calories and 3,100 grams of saturated fat. So why do we eat so much cheese? Mainly it’s because the government is in cahoots with the processed food industry. And instead of responding in earnest to the health crisis, they’ve spent the past 30 years getting people to eat more. This is the story of how we ended up doing just that.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times investigative reporter Michael Moss. His new book is called Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. He goes deep inside the laboratories where food scientists calculate the "bliss point" of sugary drinks or the "mouth feel" of fat, and use advanced technology to make it irresistible and addictive. As a result of this $1 trillion-a-year industry, one-in-three adults, and one-in-five kids, is now clinically obese.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Michael. You open your book with a remarkable summit. Talk about who was there.
MICHAEL MOSS: This is a meeting in 1999 that engaged the CEOs of some of the largest food companies in the country, and they were presented with a vivid picture of the emerging obesity crisis. And what really amazed me about this meeting, when I found out about it and found the records to it and talked to some of the people who were present, is that it was none other than one of their own, a senior executive at Kraft, who basically laid the emerging obesity crisis at the feet of the processed food industry and pleaded with them to do something collectively to turn the corner.
AMY GOODMAN: What happened?
MICHAEL MOSS: And coming from him, it was just so powerful. They reacted, as you can imagine, rather defensively. They said, "Look, we’re already providing people with choices in the grocery store. We are committed to nutrition, as we are to convenience and low prices." Frankly, they were worried about the lost millions in sales if healthier products they created weren’t as attractive as the ones they do make.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the CEO who basically ended the meeting.
MICHAEL MOSS: The head of General Mills made all of these points and was especially, I think, aghast at being blamed for the obesity crisis, because, again, he felt that in the cereal aisle, for example, General Mills was providing Cheerios with low amounts of sugar, and he didn’t see a need to down-formulate, if you will, all of the products in the grocery store in order to deal with this obesity crisis, which, you have to remember, back in ’99, was not as grave as it is today.
AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, the obesity crisis, I mean, in their terms, is about lawsuits, class action lawsuits. What does obesity mean? Why is this such a critical issue?
MICHAEL MOSS: Well, yes and no. The Kraft official who raised this back in 1999 was actually very deeply and sincerely concerned about the health effects on people and not so worried about litigation.
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.
AMY GOODMAN: The problem with obesity, what it means for, for example, children?
MICHAEL MOSS: You know, in my own household, I have two boys, eight and 13. And you can just see the sugar craving that kids have, inevitably, for sugar. You know, we’ve tried to work with our grocery shopping to get control and to—and I think that’s one of the key things—
AMY GOODMAN: How do you do it with your kids?
MICHAEL MOSS: Well, so, with the kids, my wife Eve kind of arbitrarily said, "Hey, guys, let’s try to limit your cereal, when we eat cereal in the morning, to five grams or less of sugar." And we found that when you engage them in that, shopping becomes an Easter egg hunt, and they’re able to go to the cereal aisle and find those cereals that meet that quota. And they may have to reach low, or I may have to reach high, to find them, because the most sugary ones tend to be at eye level, by calculation. But I think it’s a really important issue, is—you just can’t throw fresh carrots and fresh apples at kids without engaging them. They’ll chuck them out in the lunchroom. But if we could invigorate the home economics program in this country, which fell by the waysides, I think that would be a huge—
AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean, home economics?
MICHAEL MOSS: Well, home economics—kids in school used to be taught how to shop, how to cook from scratch, how to be in control of their diets. Doesn’t happen anymore. And I write about this in the book. What did happen is we got Betty Crocker, a figment of the imagination of a marketing official at a food company. She began pushing processed foods, convenience foods, as an alternative to scratch cooking.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain more.
MICHAEL MOSS: This was back in the '50s and ’60s. Betty Crocker, as you all know—I mean, I used to think she was a real person. She wasn't. She started out just as a marketing tool for the companies. But she was—became emblematic of the food industry’s usurpation, if you will, of the home economist. And their notion was, "Hey, look, who’s got time for scratch meals anymore? Let’s encourage consumers to buy our convenience foods to make things easier for them."
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about Lunchables, how they were invented, what they mean.
MICHAEL MOSS: I got to interview and see documents that were kept by Bob Drane, who worked for Oscar Meyer back in the ’80s when the company faced a problem with its meat. People were cutting back on consumption of red meat because it has saturated fat and salt. And Mr. Drane and his team set about looking for a way to repackage those products. He was most interested in saving jobs, and he cared very much about the company. And they came up with the Lunchables, which, as you know, is basically a TV—a cold TV dinner aimed at kids for school lunches.
But it has two remarkable things beyond kind of the ingredients that they used—meat, cheese, crackers, typically. First they went after working moms, who work outside of the home, and designed it and marketed it as a way for moms to get through the crush of the—the 7 a.m. crush in the household where everybody’s scrambling to get out of the house and off to school and work. But then they went after the kids with an amazing marketing campaign, because they realized that the Lunchables wasn’t about food. It was about empowerment for kids. And they came up with this slogan: "All day, you gotta do what they say. But lunchtime is all yours." And kids went nuts for it. Pizza Lunchables, think about it. It’s a piece of cold dough, cheese, tomato sauce, that the kids assemble themselves. But that meant everything to kids, and sales skyrocketed.
AMY GOODMAN: And then they added dessert.
MICHAEL MOSS: And then they added dessert, hamburger Lunchables, hot dog Lunchables, pancake Lunchables—some of them with huge loads of salt, sugar, fat. Kraft, to its credit, is now pulling back on those ingredients, and you can actually find some much lower amounts. But it opened the door to something really important, which is the fast-food industry has moved into the grocery store, so you no longer have to go to a fast-food chain to find problematic foods.
AMY GOODMAN: Michael Moss, talk about cheese. Talk more about cheese.
MICHAEL MOSS: So, I was amazed to hear that figure, that we are, on average, eating as much as 33 pounds of cheese a year. And I thought, "How could that be?" And that’s triple the amount back in the '70s. And the story goes like this. Starting in the ’60s, people began drinking less whole milk as a way of reducing calories and intake of saturated fat. That left the dairy industry with a glut of whole milk and the milk fat they were extracting from the whole milk to make skim milk. They went to the government and asked for help. And they started making more cheese with that milk. The government, since it subsidizes the dairy industry, bought the cheese. It accumulated. It was storing the cheese in caves in Missouri, when none other than Ronald Reagan came into office and says, "This is crazy. We've got $4 billion worth of cheese that’s going moldy. Stop it." But they still wanted to support the industry, so they came up with a marketing scheme that allowed the dairy industry to collect tens of millions of dollars every year to encourage consumers—for advertising and marketing, to encourage consumers to eat more cheese, not just as a delicacy that you eat as an hors d’oeuvre before dinner, but as an ingredient in processed food. And so, suddenly, cheese began showing up as slices on sandwiches, as ingredients in packaged foods in the store. And our consumption of saturated fat, while we thought we were taking it out of our diets, snuck back in, because cheese is largely invisible as a fat in that form.
AMY GOODMAN: Michael Moss, Jeffrey Dunn, whistleblower, or at least quit Coke. He was in charge of, what, $44 billion of sale of Coke.
MICHAEL MOSS: Wasn’t quite that much. He was in charge of North America and Latin America. But I’m glad you raise that, because—
AMY GOODMAN: Rather, $20 billion.
MICHAEL MOSS: Jeffrey Dunn was the top warrior at Coke, and he was the heir apparent, or one of the heir apparents, of the entire company in 2000, when he began having a change of heart. And, by the way, he walked me through all the incredible marketing strategy that Coke has, including targeting the most vulnerable consumers, which the company calls "heavy users."
AMY GOODMAN: Don’t call them "consumers" anymore; they’re "heavy users."
MICHAEL MOSS: "Heavy users." Twenty percent of their customers drink 80 percent of the Coke, and those are the people that it’s gone after. But starting in 2000, Jeffrey Dunn had a change of heart. It started with reading a book about sugar and the health effects. It went to his fiancÃ©e, who started like nudging him: "Hey, Jeffrey, do you really want to be doing this with your life?" And then he went to Brazil, where Coke was starting to market soda to the emerging middle class there. And out of the blue, Jeffrey says it was almost a voice he heard, said to him, "Jeffrey, you know, you should—these kids need a lot of things, but one thing they don’t need is another Coke." He went back to the company, pushed them to work more on selling healthier drinks, including soda, and cut back on marketing to schools. He ultimately left the company.
And today, he is selling fresh carrots from a farm in California, but with this—and this is really important, because this may be one way out of the situation that we’re in: He is marketing carrots as junk food, meaning he’s stolen a page of the playbook from the junk food industry to make carrots attractive to kids. And I think that is so brilliant.
AMY GOODMAN: We should probably clarify that he was pushing, when we say "Coke," though it sounds like when you’re talking about "heavy users" coke, cocaine, we’re talking Coca-Cola.
MICHAEL MOSS: Absolutely.
AMY GOODMAN: And the problem with Coca-Cola and what it means and why, for example, when they pushed it to Mexico at the time of a terrible recession, they upped their advertising, because they thought, "Well, if anyone’s got any money, they could put it into Coke."
MICHAEL MOSS: And Coke will say, "Look, we’re only part of the" — in fact, recently they had an ad campaign saying, "Hey, we’re only part of the obesity crisis. You can’t blame everything on us, as calories is calories." But there is something interesting with liquids. Science is starting to show that our brains are less able to detect calories in liquids. So, people in the know, including food industry executives, when they run into health trouble, the first thing they do is cut calories out of all the liquids that they drink as a way of maintaining their weight.
AMY GOODMAN: What were you most shocked by?
MICHAEL MOSS: Well, it was one—one was that, how on a personal level, how so many executives I met don’t eat their own foods. The other thing I think that really shocked me was when I get to salt in the book, which is how dependent and how hooked the food companies are on salt, because it’s a miracle ingredient for them. It lets them avoid using more costly ingredients like spices and herbs, and of course has this thing they called "flavor bursts," which just gets you so excited about eating snack foods, especially.
But the other thing is, salt masks off-notes or bad flavors that are inherent to some processed foods. In meat, it’s called "warmed-over flavor," which happens when the fat in meat oxidizes when it reheats, and salt is one of those things that can cover up that taste. So I was really struck. And Kellogg invited me into their research and development department, made for me special versions of their icons, like Cheez-Its, which I could normally eat all day long. Without any salt, it was the most God-awful experience you can imagine, tasting those items. They are stuck between a rock and a hard place.
AMY GOODMAN: Michael Moss, I want to thank you for being with us. His book is called Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. His cover story in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, "The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food." This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. Michael Moss is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter. He won in 2010 for his investigation into the dangers of contaminated meat.