March 22, 2013

In “Salt Sugar Fat,” investigative reporter Michael Moss shows how executives and food scientists at Coca-Cola, Kraft, Frito-Lay and Nestle are well aware that sugary, fatty and salty foods light up the same pleasure centers in our brains that cocaine does. Though they avoid using the word “addictive,” they knowingly concoct “crave-able” foods that have a high “bliss point” of sugar and hefty “mouthfeels” of fat. At the same time, they employ insidious tactics to keep their “heavy users” using and to hook new consumers, especially children. If you had any doubt as to the food industry’s complicity in our obesity epidemic, it will evaporate when you read this book.

Moss is devoted to showing us how ruthless these companies are at exploiting our built-in cravings for salt, sugar and fat, aggressively marketing junk food not just to children but to the poor. The class division becomes even more apparent when Moss asks food scientists and executives at these companies if they drink soda or feed their kids Cheetos and Lunchables (prepackaged trays of bologna, “cheese” and crackers). They don’t. When Moss sits down with Howard Moskowitz, the man who reinvented Dr Pepper, to taste his signature drink, Moskowitz demurs: “I’m not a soda drinker. It’s not good for your teeth.”

Big Food executives know that eating products like these causes severe health problems, and yet they work hard to make them as irresistible as possible.

Moss fills his book with a host of damning examples. Coke regularly preys on the poor and refers to its most loyal customers — in places like New Orleans and Rome, Ga. — as “heavy users.” In Brazil, the company wins over new customers in impoverished favelas by repackaging its sugary beverage into smaller, 20-cent¢ servings. Most of us know that Coke and Frosted Flakes contain unhealthy amounts of sugar. But Moss reveals that, eager to increase sales, companies are lacing once-wholesome foods such as yogurt and spaghetti sauce with astonishing amounts of sugar and sodium. According to Moss, Yoplait contains twice as much sugar per serving as Lucky Charms, and half a cup of Prego Traditional spaghetti sauce has as much sugar as three Oreos (not to mention one-third of the daily salt intake recommended for most Americans).

Every time the public wises up and stops buying an unhealthy product, the industry speedily reacts, launching enticing new products to lure the newly health-conscious consumer back. For instance, in the 1980s, consumers heeded advice from nutritionists to reduce their intake of saturated fat and salt by not buying bologna. In response, Oscar Mayer invented Lunchables, a convenient meal replacement still containing bologna. Cleverly marketed to harried working moms and priced affordably (yet loaded with high levels of saturated fat, sodium and even, in some versions, sugar), Lunchables were — and still are — a huge hit. Convenience, it seems, overrides parents’ health concerns, and companies know this all too well.


‘Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us’ by Michael Moss

In one of the most egregious examples of company misbehavior, Moss describes a 2008 Kellogg’s commercial for Frosted Mini-Wheats in which a voice-over claimed, “A clinical study showed kids who had a filling breakfast of Frosted Mini-Wheats cereal improved their attentiveness by nearly 20 percent.” In fact, half the children who ate the cereal showed no improvement in attentiveness. But by the time the Federal Trade Commission got around to barring Kellogg’s from making this claim, the commercial had already run for six months.

During four years of reporting, Moss met a handful of prescient executives who tried to steer their companies toward healthier products and more responsible marketing. Jeffrey Dunn, a former president and chief operating officer for Coke, launched Dasani, a bottled-water company, and pushed to stop marketing Coke in public schools. In 2003, senior executives at Kraft took the unprecedented move of publishing the salt, sugar, fat and calorie content for the whole package, instead of the much lower single-serving figure, right on the food’s label. Kraft also stopped advertising unhealthy products to children. But most of these executives ended up quitting in frustration or getting fired for their unconventional views. Dunn, for example, now uses his marketing acumen to sell baby carrots.

This is not a prescriptive book, and Moss offers no solutions — aside from encouraging readers to choose fresh fruits and vegetables over junk food. He hopes his book will serve as a wake-up call, “a tool for defending ourselves” when we enter the grocery store. Yet after 350 pages of indisputable proof of how Big Food — beholden to Wall Street but not to the public’s health — aggressively targets vulnerable populations such as children and the poor, it’s frustrating that he falls back on a “vote with your fork” refrain. Yes, it’s empowering to change your eating habits. But how can you choose healthy foods if your neighborhood bodegas sell only soda, chips and “fruit and yogurt” breakfast bars (which, as Moss points out, can have more sugar and less fiber than Oreos)?

“An intervention by Washington would certainly seem to be in order,” he writes in his epilogue. But he stops short of offering a blueprint for how government should intervene. Should our elected officials take a page from Finland and require warnings on high-salt products? Should they subsidize fruits and vegetables, making fresh blueberries competitive with Snickers? Eliminate corn subsidies? Urge the FDA to remove fructose from “generally recognized as safe” status? Moss leaves these tough questions to public health advocates and organizations such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest, one of the only groups brave enough to hold both the food industry and thegovernment accountable.

But he does offer a hint as to how we can reverse our distinction of being the most obese country in the world. In the 1950s, he writes, an army of 25,000 home-economics teachers around the country “insisted on promoting home-cooked meals, prepared the old-fashioned way,” and thousands of federal outreach workers taught students how to garden and can. Even then, these advocates of nutritious, inexpensive eating posed a threat to the processed-food industry, which fought back with its own crew of home-ec “teachers,” who held cooking contests with cake mixes.

If we’re serious about weaning kids off Coke, Cinnamon Toast Crunch and Lunchables, the first lady — who has promised to end childhood obesity within a generation — should get behind a revived home-ec program that teaches teenagers not only how to cook and garden but how to see the food industry’s deceptive marketing tactics for what they are: “brightly colored packaging and empty promises.”

bookworld@washpost.com

Hannah Wallace writes about food politics, sustainable agriculture and health.

SALT SUGAR FAT

How the Food Giants Hooked Us

By Michael Moss

Signal. 446 pp. $32.99