Michael Moss is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter who has most recently developed an important and successful career writing about health, marketing, policy and corporate interests relating to the food industry. His illuminating book, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, is a #1 New York Times bestseller and a must-read. In fact, Michael will be joining Foodstand’s Food Book & Film Club to discuss the book on Tuesday, May 17th—please join us!
How do you define good food?
It’s all good to me. Seriously. Well, maybe not okra, just because my mom made a pretty slimy version that still sits in my 8-year-old memory bank. And maybe not soda, which I’ve pretty much written off as pure evil. But just last week I made a cake for my 12-year-old’s birthday, and it was all salt, sugar and fat. And yesterday, I wolfed down some potato chips, also salt, sugar and fat (the sugar in the form of potato starch that our bodies convert to glucose.) For me, the issue is controlling that stuff rather than letting it control me. So day in and day out I’m looking to eat food that I cook from scratch, lots of vegetables (with the above mentioned exception) grown by farmers and farmhands who are fairly compensated, meat from animals that are treated as kindly as possible before they have one really bad day, and I try to keep a damper on the raging bliss point for sugar that both my boys have because they are kids.
Do you think big food can be part of a better food future?
No. Well, yes, but indirectly. The Food Giants have never been good at true invention. About the last thing they invented, in fact, was instant pudding, and that happened only because the company panicked that it was going to get beaten at this by a competitor. Their idea of a new product is one with a new package color. What they can do is buy up small start-ups that do invent stuff, and it’s these little entrepreneurs who are now racing to reinvent processed food to be low-cost, convenient, tasty and actually good for you, too. So if the Food Giants are smart, they’ll buy the best of these entrepreneurs and hopefully won’t ruin them by scaling up.
What was your biggest challenge writing Salt Sugar Fat?
Cravings. I’d be spending time talking to the guy who figured out why potato chips are so irresistible, and it would take all the effort in the world to resist grabbing a bag for myself and pigging out. Just the talk, and extraordinary science the companies use, would send the reward centers of my brain into overdrive. (Once I finished, however, things changed, and now I can walk through the grocery store and just laugh at those chips, knowing all that goes into their design and marketing, which oddly enough empowers me to make smarter decisions about what to buy.)
What first inspired you to write about health and food?
A couple of FBI agents and a really smart editor at the New York Times. In 2008 I was in Algeria reporting on militants there when the agents showed up at the paper in Manhattan, looking for me. Since 2005 I had been traveling to Iraq, tormenting the Pentagon for failing to equip American soldiers with body armor, and then reporting on how the war was empowering terrorists to recruit new help, which the agents said had landed me on an Al Qaeda hit list. I hustled back to New York, and right into another war, this one over food. My editor, Christine Kay, had spotted an outbreak of salmonella in peanuts processed at a factory in southern Georgia that were sickening thousands of people, used by a $1 trillion processed food industry that had lost control over its ingredients, and Christine recognized this for the huge story it was. A year later, after investigating the industry’s shoddy handling of hamburger, I started looking at three things the industry intentionally adds to its products with huge repercussions of public health, namely salt, sugar, and fat.
Talk a little about “bliss point”—what is it? And how did you react when you first heard the term?
Well, as the food scientist who coined this expression, Howard Moskowitz, said, “What are you going to call it, `optimum sensory liking?’ ” You have to love the language the processed food industry uses to describe its efforts to maximize the allure of its products. Its people talk about “engineering” products to be “craveable,” “snackable” and have “more-ishness.” And the bliss point is right in there. It’s the perfect amount of sweetness, not too little and not too much, that sends us over the moon and their products flying off the shelf, and when I first heard Moskowitz describe this, I was sort of blasé. I mean, well of course the industry does this. We are creatures born to love sugar. Just look at our taste buds. The ones that like sweet are all over the tongue.
Do you think it’s possible to reset America’s bliss point?
The problem with the bliss point and sugar is not that industry has perfected the sweetness for cookies and ice cream, things we know as sweets and should be treating as treats. The problem is that the industry has marched around the grocery store adding sugar to, and engineering bliss points for, things that didn’t used to be sweet. So that bread now has added sugar and a bliss point for sweet. Some yogurts came to have as much sugar per serving as ice cream. And pasta sauce, forget about it. Some brands ended up with a couple of Oreo cookies worth of sugar in a tiny half cup serving, and what that has done is create an expectancy that everything we eat should be sweet, which is a problem especially for those little walking bliss points for sugar called kids when you drag them over to the produce section and try to get them to eat some of that okra. Instant rebellion.
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What’s the most rewarding aspect of your job?
I’m first of all a reporter, and so I still get a big kick from crawling inside the underbelly of the processed food industry to discover some new, totally surprising scheme on its part to get us to not just like its products, but to want more and more. But I’m also spending time these days working on my speaking, with some pretty good success, and so I’m having great fun holding an audience captive for an hour or more, telling my food story, and the most rewarding moment is when someone tells me the book or the talk has changed their life.
Are you making a food resolution this year?
Not to make tacos for dinner more than twice a week. My kids are actually pleading for this. My wife is working long hours, so cooking has fallen to me, and boy is it hard to go week to week without boring the shit out of the family with the same old recipes.
Food issues have barely made it into the race for President. If you could ask the future President to consider a food issue that needs to be addressed, what would it be?
What do you mean barely? Didn’t Cruz say he loved eating cheese on cheese? He would have been perfect for the dairy marketing schemes I wrote about that tripled our consumption to 33 pounds a year on average by moves like stuffing cheese in the crust of pizzas. And Clinton recently came out for the soda tax, which I’ve come to like. I’d ask the now-presumptive Republican nominee to champion the use of smarter marketing practices by the produce industry to sell more vegetables, and thus nudge us all toward better health. Didn’t he hear they were all aphrodisiacs?
If you could get the general population to change ONE aspect of their eating habits, what would it be?
I can tell you what one Food Giant’s chief technical officer did when he blew out his knee and could no longer run marathons to burn off calories. He stopped eating his company’s own products, cold turkey, knowing that he was one of the many of us who couldn’t stop eating snacks until the whole bag was gone. He also stopped consuming calories in liquid form, that is drinks, which I think is really interesting. I’m trying to do the same, and thankfully everyone knows that wine and beer don’t have calories.
What’s one of your first (and most memorable) interactions with food?
I was a latchkey kid at age 10, and loved to come home to strawberry Pop Tarts. Then just a while ago, I was visiting the secret R&D facility of Kellogg’s in Battle Creek, Michigan, where way off in the corner someone was cooking up a huge batch of Pop Tarts, and wow, the aroma wafted over and took me right back to childhood. It’s incredible what those memories can do.
If you weren’t doing what you’re doing, what would you be doing?
Taking pictures. In a war zone. I was so glad I went to Iraq as a reporter, not a photographer, because they have to shoot while the bullets are flying and that’s totally addictive. It was hard enough for me to give up reporting on war, and I wasn’t even a war reporter, but rather just dabbling.
What’s always in your fridge? What do you use it for?
I’m a little nuts about sourdough bread these days, so in my fridge is a starter, and in the freezer is a variety of flour. Friday night after family movie time I’m usually in the kitchen plundering the starter for a Sunday bake.
What’s your favorite meal-on-the-go?
Lately, walking down the street, I like a nice handful of pistachios in the shell.
How have your eating habits changed since writing the book?
Not terribly. We started eating better in my house when my now 16-year-old son was born, thinking that was one thing we could do to avoid ruining him. More recently, after reporting on some shocking experimentation undertaken by the Department of Agriculture to make farm animals more profitable at the expense of their well-being, I’m pretty ruined even for taco trucks unless I know the chicken or ground chuck is not industrial and instead comes from animals the USDA hasn’t ruined.
Sugar, salt, and fat continue to be at the forefront of food discussion—e.g. “sugar is the new fat, fat is the new delicious…” What are your reflections on the book given the current environment?
I love that “salt sugar fat” has become a thing. But I have a confession. As much as I focused on them, and the industry’s own deep reliance on them has been getting us into trouble, the solution is not to just dial back on salt sugar fat, which all the Food Giants are now racing to do, concerned about losing the trust of consumers. The biggest way to better health, nutritionists tell me, is getting more vegetables and other good stuff into your mouth, which the companies have lots of trouble putting into their products.
Your good food wish?
That we should all be so lucky as to be in love with food and with eating.