Posted on 07/29/2013 at 08:29:27 AM by Student BloggerBy Meghan Johnson, MPH, MS
My first taste of Michael Moss's journalistic feat came on February 20 when The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food was published in Sunday's New York Times Magazine. If you follow nutrition-related news, the article was hard to miss. But it turned out to be only a teaser for his forthcoming book Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, published days later, which provides an inside look at the food industry's tactics to tailor processed foods so that they are nearly irresistible to the average consumer.
A few months later, I had the pleasure of meeting Michael at the GBCHealth Annual Conference in Manhattan. GBCHealth serves as a hub for private sector engagement on global health issues; it convenes a conference each spring to discuss creating a healthier workplace and world. Moss graciously humored a flurry of questions from an aspiring nutrition professional and agreed to be interviewed for this blog post.
Your book focuses on the food industry's three favorite ingredients–salt, sugar, and fat. Briefly, what did your research reveal about each of these?
Moss: Sugar is perhaps the most powerful of the three because our taste buds is hardwired for the sweet taste, and will send signals to the pleasure center of the brain that say: Love this, eat more! This is especially true for kids, whose brains see sweetness as quick calories for their growing bodies.
Fats in some ways are even more powerful, in that the “bad” fat associated with heart disease–the saturated fat–is typically hard at room temperature and less readily identified by the brain as fat, so it won't trip the body's natural brakes that keep us from overeating.
And salt I like to view as the most powerful of the three for the manufacturers. It's a miracle ingredient on which they are deeply dependent, even more than we've become. Salt acts as a preservative, giving manufacturers the months of shelf-life that processed foods need. It's an incredibly inexpensive flavoring, at 10 cents a pound, which lets them avoid using more costly ingredients like fresh herbs and spices.
You provided a fascinating history of the evolution of small, family-owned food operations into today's corporate conglomerates that produce the majority of products on grocery store shelves. How have these mergers affected food production over the years?
Moss: Certainly, consolidation in the food industry has created large companies with some inherent institutional challenges. Like big government agencies, they tend to be incredibly risk averse. What manager wants to risk his or her career (and they will) by spending millions of dollars to create and market a healthier version of their products, when the odds of failing are so high?
But I think a greater influence has been Wall Street. One expert likes to blame Silicon Valley for much of the obesity crisis. High-flying tech stocks led Wall Street to pressure Blue Chips like Big Food for greater performance, and so food CEOs began looking at their profits not annually, but daily. This created increased pressure on everyone in the company not just to create products that people like, but to create and market products that people want more and more of.
You suggest that, due to the incredible competition among the top food manufacturers, government intervention might be necessary to see meaningful progress. In the meantime, how can the nutrition community encourage food companies to offer healthier options?
Moss: The key on this front is to reinforce the notion that companies can make money selling healthier options through line extensions, which bring buzz and higher sales to the entire brand. That can be a problem for healthy policy folks, if the people who need the healthier version are drawn instead to eating or drinking more of the unhealthy version, which tend to be more heavily marketed and well-placed for sales in the grocery store.
As an alternative, some companies are starting to pledge reductions in calories, salt, sugar and fat in their mainline products, across the board, which nutritionists can help with by monitoring these efforts to ensure that the companies follow through.
The other chore is helping people to avoid thinking there is a silver bullet to obesity, or their own diet needs. Health nutrition is complex, with people needing different solutions, though it is remarkable how often and how long we've heard this from the smartest experts: Eat more vegetables and fruits, and eat less highly-processed foods. To this, people like Michael Pollan are now adding: And whenever you can, cook your own food. This leads to mindful eating, as opposed to mindless eating, which if nothing else can help people maintain or lose weight.