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Salt, Sugar, Fat:

How the Food Giants Hooked Us

Michael Moss

Michael Moss won a Pulitzer for his expose of meat contamination. But processed foods are as scandalous.

For the best part of the past four years, Michael Moss has been investigating the science of junk food. He has talked to numerous executives and scientists at Pepsi and Kraft, at Unilever and Mars and Kellogg, and written a book about processed food that is likely to make you, the consumer, feel nauseous.

"Do you think what you've found out about the food industry has made you paranoid about what you eat?" I ask him - in Moss's fridge at home in New York, are five cans of beer (Czech), two bottles of maple syrup (bought at a farm in Massachusetts), a pot of hoummos, a jar each of peanut butter and jam (low sugar, additive free), a jug of filtered water, a pack of multigrain pancake mix and a box of organic, free-range, hormone-free eggs. His freezer contains veggieburgers and wholemeal rolls.

He says he's not sure about his own paranoia levels, but speculates that it might have affected his wife. Lately, she has turned into the kind of person who asks waiters in restaurants where they source their meat. The effect on Moss's two children is apparent. When the family goes to the supermarket these days, the kids are encouraged "to be part of the hunt". A typical challenge: to find a box of cereal with less than 5g of sugar.

It is pleasing to find out that a nutritionally impeccable person such as Moss has a weakness - crisps. "The potato chip," he found out in the course of his research, "is the single largest contributor to weight gain in America." If you are old enough to remember how crisps used to taste, look and feel when you ate them back in the 1980s and have ever wondered why they're so much more irresistible now, Moss can tell you in intricate detail. When you put a crisp in your mouth, he explains: "The salt hits you almost immediately. It's an effect that the salt industry calls 'the flavour burst'. Potato chips are also soaked with fat - 'mouth feel', in industry parlance: this is the wonderful warm sensation you get when you bite into gooey cheese or fried chicken. Fat has twice the calories of sugar. And there is a load of sugar in the starch."

Though fat, sugar and salt combine to make an irresistible fast-food combination, the zinger where crisp innovation is concerned is the noise they make when you eat them. "There is a researcher in London who actually won a science prize for discovering that the more noise a crisp makes when you bite into it, the more you will like it."

The big food suppliers, he says, are dictating what consumers buy while manipulating them with deceptive advertising and packaging. "What I also found most alarming when I was researching the book was the extent to which these companies use scientists to perfect their formulations and find perfect amounts of salt, sugar, fat to create products that are irresistible." Unilever, for instance, "developed a team that used brain imaging and other advanced neurological tools to study the sensory powers of food, including fat".

Meanwhile, ingredients such as sugar are being technically altered: its sweetest component, fructose, has been crystallised into an additive. Scientists have also created enhancers that amplify the sweetness of sugar to 200 times its natural strength. As for salt: "We're not born liking salt. It doesn't happen until we're about six months and it is looking like the processed food industry is controlling our craving for salt. Studies show that children who are fed processed food from a very young age develop huge salt cravings. The food giants are not just accountable for the situation but, in this case, also accountable for having caused it."

At Cargill, the world's leading supplier of salt, scientists are developing ways to change the physical shape of salt, pulverising it to a fine powder so that it hits your palate faster and harder. Somehow Moss persuaded Kellogg to make him a saltless version of its mega-selling crisps Cheez-It. "They felt like straw, chewed like cardboard." He concludes: "Take more than a little salt, or sugar, or fat out of processed food, these experiments showed, and there is nothing left. Or, worse, what is left are the inexorable consequences of food processing, repulsive tastes that are bitter, metallic and astringent."

Some readers might find another revelation more telling and troubling: executives at the big food companies, Moss claims, tend not to eat their own food. "I was really surprised to meet company official to company official that doesn't eat their own product," he says, "especially if they ran into health problems." He talks about the senior executive who stopped eating most of the company's own products after he sustained a knee injury and started putting on weight. "It showed me there is a socio-economic factor going on here. The marketers of these foods are at an economic level where they can afford personal trainers and expensive wholefoods and they're out of touch with the health implications of the food that the rest of us are eating because they’re not eating them."

Packaging is another bugbear of Moss's. "The moment you walk in to the grocery store everything is tilted in the favour of the food giants - from the placing of the food to the pricing to the incredible marketing and advertising on the front of the packages to the deceptive practices in the fine print on the packages. It's all stacked against you." I ask him for some supermarket tips. "The first thing you want to do is look at the front of the label. And if you see things that say 'low fat', 'fruity', 'low sugar' or 'healthy' or 'all natural' that should be a huge warning. You should look really closely at the nutrient label because so often these companies will lower one of the unholy trinity of salt, sugar, fat and raise the other two up. Look at low fat yoghurt - laden with more sugar than ice cream." Moss says beware the breakfast bar. "If you read the fine print they often have as much sugar, fat, salt as cookies, if not more."

Reared on healthy foods, Moss's 13 year old is apparently hooked on hoummos sandwiches. This is in contrast to many children his age who could be said to be addicted to fatty, sugary, salty fast food. "The food industry prefers not to speak of 'addiction' or 'addictive'," Moss says - "crave-able" is the acceptable term. How surreal then, that at Coke's headquarters in Atlanta the most loyal customers are referred to as 'heavy users'. When he spoke to Nora Volkow, a research psychiatrist, scientist and director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, she told Moss: "Clearly, processed sugar in certain individuals can produce compulsive patterns of intake. And in those situations I would recommend they just stay away. Don't try to limit yourself to two Oreo cookies because if the reward is very potent, no matter how good your intentions, you are not going to be able to control them - which is the same message we have for people addicted to drugs."

Does he think that companies have a moral obligation to look after the wellbeing of their customers? Will the parallels that some people are drawing between the tobacco and food industries mean that he thinks the big food companies will be held responsible, legally or otherwise, for the obesity crisis? "I think it's been wrong of anyone to expect these companies to do anything on moral or ethical grounds. It's just anti-capitalism." Perhaps it's the other way around. Perhaps consumers get the food industry we deserve?

Two weeks after the horsemeat scandal broke in the UK, polls indicated that more than half of the public were not prepared to pay more for their (processed) food. Moss counters that most people don't have the time to intensively research the ingredients labels and claims of the food they eat. "These companies know what they are doing. They have been aware of the obesity crisis for years and years. They had the resources, the scientists, the technicians to do better by the consumers but they are not using these resources." As a positive example, he namechecks the US chain Costco. "They limit their purchases to just a couple of suppliers - there is no way they would accidentally be using horsemeat. They also do testing on the meat that comes into their factory: if there's any problem with their sourcing, you'll get a letter about it, before the Government gets a letter. These companies can do better if they want to."

Governments also need to pull their weight: "I was stunned by the extent that the department of agriculture joins forces with both the dairy and the meat industry to push increased consumption of cheese and red meat at the same time that the agriculture department's own nutritionists are encouraging people to eat less." He says governments turn a blind eye to false advertising: "You can call chickens and eggs 'free-range' even if they're allowed to walk out five minutes in the day and go scrabble in the parking lot. That is an example of how the agriculture department fails to monitor advertising slogans. It is a travesty. I think it's probably the same in the UK."

Food scandals are becoming more frequent, he says: "What's really disconcerting is that you see this not just in meat but in vegetable and in innocent sounding things like peanuts which had a salmonella scandal in the US a few years ago. The chain of ingredients in processed foods has become so disparate and global that the companies themselves have lost control over the sourcing of their ingredients. And if they can't control it, certainly we can't control it. There are so many middlemen." He was delighted when, last week, officials connected to the peanut processing factory in Georgia were indicted on federal counts. "And I think today you have food company officials waking up in the country saying, 'What can I do now to make sure this doesn't happen to me'."

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