Michael Moss' recent cover article in the New York Times Magazine, The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food, served as a preview for the Pulitzer Prize winning reporter's latest food industry exposé: Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. As Moss says, processed foods are a $1 trillion dollar a year business with over 60,000 products on supermarket shelves. That's a lot of bologna.
In the book, Moss recreates secret meetings among industry leaders (Pillsbury, Kraft, Coca-Cola, Nabisco, Nestle) and dissects the origins of successful processed products like Lunchables, which he says emerged as a corporate solution to dwindling bologna sales. Healthy school lunch advocates, perhaps there is a lesson here: Kids ate them up, despite the dismal lunch prospects (cold raw pizza, cold hot dogs), largely due to the clever marketing campaign: “All day you gotta do what [adults] say. But lunchtime is all yours.”
Moss even successfully entices many former junk food company executives and consultants to discuss their tactics. The parallels to the tobacco industry are loud and clear. Get more after the jump.
When faced with a dramatic decrease in the consumption of whole milk in the 1960s, and thus a glut of milk fat, what did corporate executives to do? Turn the fat into cheese. Problem: there wasn't a market need for additional cheese, as most consumers just nibbled on a few cubes here and there. Solution: Create an entirely new food category — processed cheese — thus turning cheese into an ingredient so new products can be created that use it (cheese crackers, cheese dip, stuffed pizza crust). The result: People ate more (processed) cheese and the dairy industry's problem was solved.
Moss also covers food scientists who analyze the “bliss point” of sugar-fat-salt ratios, the ideal point at which a food gives us enough pleasure so we impulsively want to keep eating or drinking, but it's not so good that we slow down and savor that chocolate (see David Katz's article on sensory-specific satiety).
Not surprisingly, there are also a host of chemical alterations at play that companies use like making larger fat globules and finer salt crystals to increase mouth feel and our perceived satisfaction. Moss says salt alone is now produced in more than 40 different grades, “from powdered to pyramid shapes that are designed to send the strongest signals of allure to the brain.” (We apologize if you brought Doritos for lunch.)
Yes, you will likely need some Prozac to get through the book. But there are some positive takeaways, like the former top executive at Coca-Cola who is now doing self-inflected “penance” for his soda years by trying to sell packaged baby carrots to school kids on a large scale. (If only such motivations would trickle down to publicists pushing celebrity chefs and swanky restaurants.) And yes, many corporations have recently committed to offering healthier choices, though Moss questions the extent of those “healthy” McDonald's fruit smoothie claims.
But really, you didn't buy this book to hear about reformed corn syrup peddlers. The book is set up like a really good horror flick, an addictive plot thanks to Moss' reporting and the rise of shock value-induced, pink slime media coverage in recent years (the New York Times Magazine cover page for his article featured this former junk food executive's quote: “I feel so sorry for the public”). Actually, the book itself should come with a content warning: We recommend you read it only on days when you can invest in a little farmers market therapy.
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