The conclusion of Michael Moss' new book, 'Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us,' is not exactly a shocker: Food conglomerates, with their continued use of unhealthy and irresistible ingredients, are hugely responsible for this country's current obesity problem. What is surprising in this deep, multiyear investigation is how these companies came to dominate the grocery store – and changed a nation's eating habits. In perhaps the most comprehensive book on the subject, Moss, a New York Times journalist, exposes behind-the-scenes corporate decision-making and gets inside the labs and factories where scientists create the most unhealthy food in the world.
What led you to start this four-year investigation?
It began with a 20-year-old dance instructor named Stephanie Smith, who was paralyzed from the waist down after contracting E. coli from a hamburger. I was tracing the origins of the burger she ate [for Moss' 2010 Pulitzer Prize-winning piece, "The Burger That Shattered Her Life"]. It wasn't a pretty picture. At one point, a meat-industry scientist said to me, "If you want to see something that makes lots more people sick, look at the things the food giants are intentionally adding to their products." So I went to see what I could learn about those ingredients – salt, sugar, and fat.
You saw food scientists at work. What surprised you?
I was able to see young Tatyana, who was six years old at the time, taste a series of puddings with increasing amounts of sugar in a research center funded by the industry. You could see in her face, when she ate the pudding, which level of sugar sent her over the moon – how it's such a powerful ingredient.
The 1950 invention of Jell-O instant pudding is framed as the original sin of General Foods. What happened?
One of the underlying problems is the issue of convenience. In the 1950s, there was an effort led by General Foods to have food be as convenient as possible to buy, take home, and eat. But it was also trying to keep chemicals out of its food and stick to natural foods. Then another company came along and filed a patent for instant pudding that used chemicals. The scientists came to work the next day with orders to do anything they could to beat the competitor. It's a theme you see: When one company wants to do the right thing with ingredients, you get intense competition from companies that may not have the same convictions.
In the early 2000s, Kraft tried to tackle the obesity epidemic with healthier food. Why did it fail?
Kraft set out on its own to change the way it formulated and marketed its product. To a large extent, it was very successful, cutting some 30 billion calories from its foods. Then Hershey came along with a host of new cookies, and Kraft was faced with faltering sales. It decided that to survive, it had to nudge up the fat in Oreos [by introducing the Triple Double Oreo, the Banana Split Creme Oreo, and others]. It was telling to see Kraft step out and say the health of our consumers is important to us – only to be overwhelmed by competition.
The FDA seems so passive and in the pocket of the food industry. Is that fair?
The USDA and FDA's role is to protect consumers. It's absolutely fair to hold them accountable for all the missed opportunities to be far more aggressive or, at the least, convey information to consumers so that they can make decisions about what they're going to buy at grocery stores. Nutrition labels, for one, have zero guidance on how much sugar you should limit yourself to in a day, because the industry has convinced the FDA that, unlike salt and fat, the science on health and sugar is too flabby to require imposing a standard.
You blame the USDA for American overconsumption of cheese. How so?
When people started drinking less milk to improve their health in the Eighties, the dairy industry, with the government's complicity, began funneling all that milk fat back into our diet through cheese, which was turned from a delicacy you eat as an hors d'oeuvre before a meal into an ingredient that you find in so many processed foods. This is why our cheese consumption has tripled in the past few decades, and cheese is the single biggest source of saturated fat in our diets.
What's your advice for navigating the grocery store?
The most treacherous parts of the grocery store are the centers of the aisles, at eye level. Look for the healthier products at the bottom, top, or the ends. Watch out for "fruit" as an ingredient, too. Companies swap a little bit of sugar for fruit-juice concentrate, which is every bit as caloric as sugar and every bit not as healthful as eating fresh fruit.