Wait, We're Eating What?

Reporter Michael Moss explains how Americans became hooked on junk food.

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Processed foods have become a staple in American diets, and the result has been a nationwide epidemic of obesity-related health issues. In "Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us," Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter Michael Moss exposes how unregulated food industry behemoths have developed unhealthy ways to get consumers hooked on their brands. Moss recently spoke with U.S. News about the industry's secrets, what consumers are really eating, and what can be done about it. Excerpts:

What inspired you to investigate the American food industry?

An editor at The New York Times, Christine Kay, spotted the outbreak of salmonella in peanuts in late 2008, and that started me looking at processed food. One of my most trusted sources in the industry said to me, "You know, Michael, as tragic as these incidents are, there's another public health crisis afoot in the things that are intentionally added to processed food that the industry has absolute control over." He was referring, of course, to salt, sugar and fat consumption.

[See a collection of political cartoons on health care.]

How much salt, sugar and fat does the average American consume in a year?

There are estimates, of course, but we're averaging something like twice the recommended amount of salt. The best estimate of sugar is 70 pounds a year. We're averaging 11 percent of our calories [from] saturated fat, the bad one linked to heart disease, and the recommendation is to get it down to 7 percent or less.

Who is responsible for this increased consumption?

My reporting, I think, shows that much of the responsibility lies with the processed food industry, largely because they're collectively zealous about using heaps of salt, sugar and fat to make their products convenient, low cost and utterly tasty. What was compelling for me is that people inside the industry hold themselves accountable for the problem.

To what extent is the government responsible for increased consumption?

I was stunned that, in many cases, the government agencies that are supposed to be regulating the processes in the food industry are not. And the cheese example is a great one. The government incentivized the dairy industry to make so much cheese it piled up. Then Washington created a scheme that allows the industry to raise tens of millions of dollars for marketing to get us to eat more cheese as an additive in cooking and processed foods. Our cheese consumption has tripled since the 70s, and it's now the No. 1 source of all that saturated fat we're getting.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Should the Sale of Large Sugary Drinks Be Prohibited?]

In what ways does the industry target young children?

They understand that kids especially are hardwired for sweet taste. Every one of their 10,000 taste buds are ready to send signals to the brain saying, "Eat more." Over the years, products throughout the grocery store that were never sweet were sweetened.

You say that food has been "weaponized." What do you mean by that?

Salt manufacturers convert [salt] into just all kinds of shapes and sizes aimed at perfecting its use in various processed foods, from very fine powders that dissolve in soup to the kosher-style pyramid salt that dissolves three times faster and is sold as having the biggest flavor burst in foods.

Are Americans addicted to these foods?

I tried to use the "A" word sparingly because the industry argues convincingly that food lacks some of the technical definitions of addiction and narcotics. They prefer words like alluring, craveable, smackable. But the aim is the same, which is to create the perfect formula and amounts of salt, sugar and fat that will send us over the moon and make their products irresistible.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Should Sugar Be Regulated?]

Can consumers outsmart food company giants?

I'm hoping that the book itself will empower people by showing them everything the food industry does the second you walk in the door. From trying to get you to make spontaneous decisions about what to buy, to positioning the most loaded products at eye level in the middle of the shelves.