One of the best parts of living in Brooklyn is bumping into one of your favorite Pulitzer Prize-winning writers at your local ramen shop.
Having chosen Michael Moss’ “Salt Sugar Fat” for my book club, I invited him to join us for wine and a living room chat. Michael was down-to-earth and generous with his time, sharing his knowledge about the corporate food industry’s deliberate attempts to hook the American consumer on processed food.
As someone who studies emotional health and relationships, I often advise clients to strip processed foods from their diet. Chemicals, additives, and colorants wreak health on emotional health.
On a separate afternoon in Michael’s beautiful brownstone, we talked food. Corporations have changed the ways we eat (and not for the better).
I can eat an entire bag of potato chips in one sitting! After reading “Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us,” I learned that my lack of self-control is not entirely my fault. Please explain how food corporations impact the way we eat?
Well, you’re certainly not alone. In researching the book, I interviewed the former chief technical officer of the giant food manufacturer Kraft who was in charge of all things scientific for the company. He told me how he would come home from work and open a bag of chips only to find himself eating the whole thing. When he had to change his diet because of a knee injury that kept him from running, the first thing he did was banish many of his own company’s products from his house, knowing that he couldn’t restrain himself from over-eating. Or rather, knowing how these products were designed in ways that induced that kind of behavior.
The Food Giants use extraordinary science to hit the perfect amounts of salt, sugar and fat in their products that create the biggest amounts of desire in us. While the industry says it’s not intentionally trying to cause anyone to overeat, there is a very thin line between making a product that is likable and making one that causes you to want more and more.
On top of that, they became masters at marketing, finding ways through their advertising to hit the emotional buttons that cause us to eat—not because we are hungry, but because we are lonely or bored or distracted.
It’s that double whammy of food science and marketing that has made them so successful in dominating our eating habits.
2. Your upcoming book is about addiction. Is food addictive? How is this addiction impacting us emotionally, as well as physically?
I’m still wrestling with this, but at the moment I’d say, “Yes, food is addictive, but…” And, before I get to the but, it’s important to consider the definition of addiction. I like what a CEO of Philip Morris said when pressed to define the condition and he settled on, “a repetitive behavior that some people find difficult to quit.” To which I would add, of course, that the repetitive behaviors we care about are those that in one way another cause us harm. But the key word in his definition for me is some.
Addiction is quite capricious. I’ve learned from neuroscientists and others who are studying this matter that there is compelling evidence that some foods – pizza, burgers, chocolate, French fries, potato chips – can compel us to overeat to the extent that it harms our health, in much the same way that some drugs cause people to hurt themselves. But, as with narcotics, the most addictive foods don’t compel everyone to overeat. Just some of us, and sometimes at just some moments in our life. It’s not just the food or the drug that’s at play in addiction, it’s also our own vulnerability.
The but in my answer comes from questioning whether viewing food as addictive is the way we want to go, given how the industry has preparing for that eventuality. But I’ll save that for the book.
3. Most Americans have limited time and money. What are some good rules to make healthier choices that save money?
Question the value of convenience. The industry coined that term to promote their products as time savers, but they’ve wildly exaggerated the convenience of their products, while hoping we overlook the cost to our health and pocketbooks.
Consider pasta sauce. We can buy their 32-ounce jar for $7 or $8, and it will have hefty amounts of sugar and salt because they need those as preservatives and to cover up the fact that their tomatoes weren’t good. Or we can buy a can or two of Red Pack plum tomatoes (yum, you can sip the liquid), drop them into a skillet where garlic has been sautéing in olive oil for 2 minutes. With a few sundry herbs and a pinch of sugar (just cause my mom always did) and salt (and a few minutes more on the stovetop, while we’re chatting a friend), we have sauce for the ages, for much less money. If convenience is co-opting, adding just a little bit of cooking from scratch to our lives is empowering.
Now, whisking a thin stream of olive oil into an egg yolk to make mayo is a bit trickier, but wow, what a thing that is when you pull that off.
4. I teach about relationships, especially the concept of “mutuality”—where all parties are getting their needs met in a manner that is equal and fair. Corporations and consumers are in a relationship with one another. Big food corporations (and shareholders) are satisfying their needs monetarily (with annual sales of $1 trillion dollars). Are consumers getting their needs me? If so, how?
Needs met? We’ve been robbed, flat out.
We’ve gotten physically sick from their products. Obesity alone now besets one in three people and has a health-consequence price tag in the hundreds of billions of dollars that we have to pay, not the companies.
We’ve gotten emotionally sick, as well, trading the sterile microwaved product for the love-infused homemade meal. And we’ve gotten an economy where mothers eat at McDonald’s only because it’s the one place they can afford where their family is willing to sit down together for a meal. They’re bargaining with the devil that the emotional quotient of a family meal is worth the price they pay in harm to their health.
5. I worked for NYC government under the Bloomberg Administration. He saw government as a vital player in matters of public health. (During his tenure, he banned trans fats, required food establishments to post calorie counts, encouraged green markets and produce carts, and started the country's first large-scale registry of people with diabetes.) How is government regulating the food industry now? What policies would have a positive impact on public health?
I was so surprised to learn through my research how the Food Giants in some ways are even more powerful than the government agencies that supposedly regulate them on our behalf.
It wasn’t until the 1990s that they were even required to tell us what they put into their packaged goods. And, it’s not until now that they’re pressed to say how much sugar they add. They’re allowed to put most any lie on the front of their packages, hoping to deceive us into overlooking the fine print on the back.
More critically, the government watchdogs have let them turn the conversation about food into conversation about nutritionist (i.e., How many grams of saturated fat does that box have?) versus “Is this real food made with real ingredients?” The companies will always win in that framework because they can adjust their ingredients to play up or down whatever nutrition thing we’re most concerned with at the moment (e.g., sugar or fat).
I loved the work Bloomberg did and the conversation that Michelle Obama started, but because of the industry’s power, even she ended up having to focus more on physical exercise as the solution to our food trouble than finding more ways to excise the Food Giants from our lives. And, they were the best of elected officials. So, no, I’m not looking much to government for change, but rather to us the people, and in this there is very good news. Just a little shift in our buying habits is enough to cause panic in the Food Giants, and we already see them scrambling to find ways (or acquire other companies that know how) to reinvent processed food so that it’s convenient, affordable, yummy but also good for us. Which is a great step in the right direction.