How The Food Industry Manipulates Taste Buds With 'Salt Sugar Fat'
Dealing Coke to customers called "heavy users." Selling to teens in an attempt to hook them for life. Scientifically tweaking ratios of salt, sugar and fat to optimize consumer bliss.
In his new book, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Michael Moss goes inside the world of processed and packaged foods.
Moss begins his tale back in 1999, when a vice president at Kraft addressed a meeting of top executives of America's biggest food companies. His topic: the growing public health concerns over the obesity epidemic and the role packaged and processed foods were playing in it. Michael Mudd stated his case, pleading with his colleagues to pay attention to the health crisis and consider what companies could do to hold themselves accountable.
According to Moss, the first response came from the CEO of General Mills.
"[He] got up and made some very forceful points from his perspective," Moss tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies, "and his points included this: We at General Mills have been responsible not only to consumers but to shareholders. We offer products that are low-fat, low-sugar, have whole grains in them, to people who are concerned about eating those products.
"Bottom line being, though, that we need to ensure that our products taste good, because our accountability is also to our shareholders. And there's no way we could start down-formulating the usage of salt, sugar, fat if the end result is going to be something that people do not want to eat."
In Salt Sugar Fat, Moss details how those three ingredients became key to the success of processed and packaged foods — and how they are fueling the nationwide obesity epidemic.
Employing scientists to dissect elements of the palate and tweak ratios of salt, sugar and fat to optimize taste, the processed food industry, Moss says, has hooked consumers on their products the same way the cigarette industry hooked smokers on nicotine.
Since that meeting in 1999, when executives declined to craft an industrywide standard for more healthful products, some companies, like Kraft, have tackled the issue unilaterally, altering recipes to cut down on salt, sugar and fat. Moss' research, however, indicates that government regulation may be necessary to implement industrywide standards in the interest of public health.
"I was surprised to hear from the former CEO of Philip Morris, who is no friend of government, no friend of government regulation," says Moss, "to tell me that, 'Look, Michael, in the case of the processed food industry, what you're looking at is a total inability on their part to collectively decide to do the right thing by consumers on the health profile of their products. In this case, I can see how you might need government regulation if [for] nothing else [than] to give the companies cover from the pressure of Wall Street.' "
On the marketing campaign for Frosted Mini-Wheats that called the cereal "brain food"
"What they came up with was some science that they had generated that they said showed that kids who ate Frosted Mini-Wheats for breakfast would be as much as or almost 20 percent more alert in the classroom, which the company translated into better grades for kids. ... You could almost see parents trying to do the math: 'Well, you know, Johnny got a C+ on that test, and if we bumped it up by 20 percent, hey, he's in an A-minus category.' That campaign went on for a while until the FTC jumped in and said, 'Hey, wait a minute, we're looking at your study and it doesn't really show anything near that kind of gain,' and not only that, but they weren't even looking at other breakfasts to compare to the Frosted Mini-Wheats."
On Coke's marketing strategy
"Within Coke they referred to their best customers not as you might think — 'consumers' or 'loyal fans' or something like that. They became known as 'heavy users.' And Coke had a formula ... that basically said, '20 percent of the people will use 80 percent of the product.' And, as Coke saw it, it was worth their while more to focus on those 20 percent using 80 percent of the product than to try to generate more consumption by the other 80 percent. So the heavy users of soda became those people who were drinking as many as 1,000 cans of soda a year, sometimes even more."
On hooking teens on brand loyalty
"The clientele were kids — teenagers — who were going out on their own for the first time with a little bit of change into an environment where they could make the decision about what to buy and, for $1 or $2, they could go in there and choose a soda or a snack and decide between brands. And this was critical to Coke, as it is to other companies, because those decisions early on, especially in the teen years, will develop brand loyalties. So a child that chooses Pepsi at age 13 or 14 is likely to maintain that brand loyalty through the rest of their life."
On Kraft owner Philip Morris' foresight with regards to processed foods
"As Philip Morris came under pressure for nicotine and cigarettes, it eventually started looking at the food divisions in light of the emerging obesity crisis. And there were moments in these internal documents where Philip Morris officials were saying to the food division, 'You guys are going to face a problem with salt, sugar, fat in terms of obesity of the same magnitude, if not more than [what] we're facing with nicotine right now. And you've got to start thinking about this issue and how you're going to deal with that.' "
On visiting Kellogg
"They made for me special versions of some of their most iconic products ... without any salt in it to show me why they were having trouble cutting back. And, I have to say, it was a god-awful experience. ... starting with Cheez-Its, which normally I could eat all day long. The Cheez-Its without salt stuck to the roof of my mouth and I could barely swallow. Then we moved onto frozen waffles, which tasted like straw. The real moment came in tasting a cereal — I think it was Corn Flakes — which tasted hugely, awfully metallic. It was almost like a filling had come out of my mouth and it was sloshing around."
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. Public health officials have expressed alarm in recent years at the growth in obesity and diabetes among Americans and their relationship to sweet and salty, often fat-laden, processed foods.
Our guest, journalist Michael Moss, has spent years covering American food companies, and in his new book he looks at food industry labs, where scientists carefully craft snacks, desserts and processed meals we just can't resist. He says they find that salt, sugar and fat are magic ingredients in producing the tastes and textures that will entice customers and ensure their products shelf space in supermarkets and convenience stores.
In his research, Moss spoke with many food industry scientists and executives, some of whom regret their success in making foods Americans love. Michael Moss is an investigative reporter for the New York Times. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 2010 for his series on the dangers of contaminated meat. His new book is called "Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us."
Well, Michael Moss, welcome to FRESH AIR. At the beginning of your book, you describe a remarkable meeting in 1999 among leaders of America's largest food companies - talking about growing concerns about health and obesity. This was unknown to reporters at the time?
MICHAEL MOSS: It was. This was a private meeting of some of the top officials of some of the largest companies in the country who were brought together for this absolutely extraordinary moment when they were told at this meeting that obesity is surging, along with other health issues, and that the industry was coming to a moment in time when it needed to start wrestling with the health issues in terms of accepting responsibility for at least part of the obesity crisis and being - holding themselves accountable for trying to come up with part of the solution.
DAVIES: Right, and this was not prompted by activists or regulators, right? How did it get organized?
MOSS: That was one of the most extraordinary things about it, which is that the main presenter at the meeting was a senior official at the largest food giant, Kraft, who in the years leading up to the meeting had become increasingly concerned about the looming obesity crisis and increasingly concerned about the fate of his industry.
And during the course of his presentation to the CEOs, he was pleading with them to pay attention to the issue and start thinking about the things that they could do collectively to turn the corner.
DAVIES: Right. Now, maybe of them had produced kind of healthy sideline brands. Was his pitch you need to do a better job of marketing because people care about health? Or was it we are hurting people, and we need to change what we do? Or some of both?
MOSS: Well, it was the latter mostly. He talked about marketing in the sense that, look, we really need to start thinking about the marketing we do that's directed toward children because they are so susceptible, especially to sugary foods, in the way that our bodies are hardwired for sugar, and all 10,000 taste buds in the mouth are connected to the brain and tell you to eat more sweet food when you get some.
But he went beyond that too, to again sort of impress upon the - and in meetings prior to this meeting as well, there was discussion about not only the marketing practices of the company but the actual formulation. And in previous meetings there was starting to be talk within the industry about whether they'd gone too far in formulating their foods to be utmost attractive and alluring to people.
And this was what was on the table, and this, you know, generated this somewhat hostile, defensive reaction from the CEOs.
DAVIES: Well, right. Now, the guy that organized this was - Michael Mudd was his name, right, the executive at Kraft?
DAVIES: Right, and of course it took someone of his stature to get the executives of all these major food companies together in a room for this candid conversation. They heard the pitch. What did they say?
MOSS: You know, the first reaction came from, according to the three participants that I spoke to at the meeting, came from the CEO of General Mills, who got up and made some very forceful points from his perspective, and his points included this: You know, we at General Mills have been, you know, responsible not only to consumers but to shareholders.
We offer products that are low-fat and low-sugar, have whole grains in them, to people who are concerned about eating those products - bottom line being, though, that we need to ensure that our products taste good because our accountability is also to our shareholders, and there's no way we could start down-formulating the usage of salt, sugar, fat across the board if the end result is going to be something that people will not want to eat.
DAVIES: And so did anything happen? Was - did the group reassemble?
MOSS: Well, yes and no. I mean so that basically - his very strong sort of forceful response to Michael Mudd's presentation ended the meeting. Mudd was looking, even at a minimum, for, you know, a pool of $15 million from all the companies so they could start researching the causes of obesity and start pulling together a plan of action. You know, that money never materialized, or was just a few million dollars instead.
And what happened going forward was that some of the companies, especially Kraft, decided to sort of go at this issue unilaterally, on their own, and that to me is sort of one of the more fascinating stories in the book, about how Kraft on its own decided to push ahead, do the right thing by consumer health without pulling the rest of the industry along with it, which was an extraordinary move by the company.
DAVIES: But most of the food manufacturers kept doing what they were doing.
MOSS: They kept doing what they were doing, in some cases adding even more salt, sugar, fat into their foods. You know, again, they would continue creating low-fat, low-sugar versions of their mainline products, but the goal remained what it had been for decades prior, which again was to make the most convenient, the most long-lasting, the least-cost foods that they could, because, you know, those are the products, and many of them are the foods we all hate to love that, you know, with those formulas and that marketing creates a situation where we buy more, we eat more, and the companies make more profits.
And these are companies that are profit-driven. They are addicted to profits as much as we are addicted to salt, sugar and fat. And you have to - I think when you understand that, you can see where the food industry is coming from and what the prospects might be for changing things to the better of public health.
DAVIES: Now, a lot of your book deals with research among food companies about health and even more about how they - how they can make stuff that we just can't resist. And I guess it's in the section on sugar that you refer to something called the bliss point. Explain that.
MOSS: This was a mathematical term that was applied to food back in the 1970s by a food scientist who at the time was actually working for the U.S. Army in helping to try to develop food rations for soldiers in the field. His goal was to get soldiers to eat more in the field, because they have the contrary problem in warfare, which is, you know, under battle the last thing you want to do sometimes is to eat food.
So the Army was in the position of trying to make its food more attractive and palatable to soldiers and still have it be able to sit on the shelf for three years. So this scientist, Howard Moskowitz, was working very hard at figuring out the precise amounts of salt, sugar, fat and especially sugar in foods that would cause people to go over the moon and for products - eventually when he started working for food companies - to fly off the shelves.
And this became, this magical point where sugar was at an optimum level for creating allure came to be known as the bliss point.
DAVIES: Right, so there's a point at which if you keep adding sugar beyond that, it doesn't work as well, it's the point that you love it, and you want more.
MOSS: Yeah, you think about in your own life, you're making Kool-Aid, and you're adding sugar to it, and there's a point where you go yuck, I mean I can't eat anymore, it's like too sweet. That applies to sugar. We can talk about fat, where by contrast there's almost no bliss point for fat; if there is, it would be up the realm of, you know, beyond heavy cream, which in some ways makes fat an even more powerful ingredient for the food companies.
DAVIES: Now, when the American Heart Association recommended less sugar in processed foods, one of the responses of manufacturers, you write, was that it's not just that we need food sweet, but it's really integral to the way we make processed food. How do - how do the manufacturers use it in processed food and even alter the characteristics of sugar so that it works better?
MOSS: It has almost, you know, endless sort of uses for the food industry, but it's used not only for flavor and the way that it, you know, generates pleasurable responses from food-eaters, but it's also used to make food better, bigger, look better in appearance. You know, doughnuts have a larger shape, and cookies, when sugar is used in optimum amounts.
The coloring of foods is much better with certain types of sugar added. And all around it's just, you know, beyond taste, of multiple functions for the food industry.
DAVIES: So it's not just taste, it's texture, it's appearance?
MOSS: Yes, absolutely, which is a critical part of food, of course, as any home cook or chef will tell you too. The processed food industry is as concerned about the appearance and the texture and the sound of its food as it is to the magic formulations of salt, sugar, fat.
DAVIES: Food with sugar sounds better when you eat it, it crunches?
MOSS: Well, we'll get to potato chips, but there have been studies showing that the more noise a potato chip makes, the more you're going to be attracted to it and eat.
DAVIES: You write about how General Foods and Kellogg were so creative in developing breakfast cereals that were loaded with sugar. And there are some really jaw-dropping marketing pitches in the book. Do you have a favorite?
MOSS: Well, I was really struck at the campaign that Kellogg ran for Apple Jacks. They decided, and this was in the mid-2000s, they decided that apple had become problematic to them and that kids maybe weren't drawn to the taste of apple in Apple Jacks as they were, you know, a couple decades ago when it was invented.
They created this campaign, this ad campaign, wherein there were two characters, and one was a cinnamon stick, and another was a fresh apple. And in the campaign, as it was unveiled and started out, the apple was made into a bad guy. There were races between the two, and the cinnamon stick was always the one to win, and the apple was stumbling and unattractive and just not something you would want to associate with, and he lost.
And it drove nutrition advocates crazy because here they were trying to encourage kids to eat more fresh fruit. Kellogg was giving apple, however purposefully, a bad name in their eyes. And eventually Kellogg ended up changing the ad so that apple at least was on equal footing with the cinnamon, which was basically just a euphemism for the added sugar in the cereal.
DAVIES: There was the campaign to sell Frosted Mini-Wheats as brain food, right?
MOSS: You know, I think that story too illustrates one of the huge issues in the grocery store, which is the competition among companies is so fierce, and Kellogg was losing a bit of market share to other cereals when they decided they had to put a fresh campaign on the Frosted Minis.
And what they came up with was some science that they had generated that they said showed that kids who ate Frosted Mini-Wheats for breakfast would be as much as or almost 20 percent more alert in the classroom, which the company translated into things like better grades for kids.
And 20 percent, you know, you could almost see parents trying to do the math. Well, you know, Johnny got a C-plus on that test, and if we bumped it up by 20 percent, hey, he's in an A-minus category. That campaign went on for a while, until actually the FTC jumped in and said, hey, wait a minute, you know, we're looking at your study, and it doesn't really show anything near that kind of gain.
And not only that, but they weren't even looking at other breakfasts to compare to the Frosted Mini-Wheats. And so Kellogg eventually agreed to sort of change the wording on that campaign as well. But again, it sort of just illustrates the amazing pressure that the food giants are under to maintain sales and profits. And again, they're companies, and that's what they do.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Michael Moss. His new book is "Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: You write a lot about soda and how, of course, there's a lot of research that directly connects it to the obesity epidemic among young people. That single can of Coke, you know, has, what, eight teaspoons of sugar. And you met a guy named Jeffrey Dunn, who had spent a lot of his career at Coca-Cola, which was always in this tooth-and-nail battle with Pepsi. Do you want to describe some of the ways that he and his friends at Coke tried to get Americans to drink more of it, as opposed to Pepsi, or just drink more Coke?
MOSS: Jeffrey Dunn was just fabulous. I mean his dad had worked at Coke, and he managed to get a job at Coke himself and rose through the ranks. And he was, he was a master at marketing Coke. And one of the ways that they went after and helped sort of foster the consumption of Coke was they were the first, Coke was, to sort of come up with this notion of limitless soda-drinking in restaurants.
They came up with sort of the endless fountain. So you bought a cup, and you're allowed to go back to the fountain to drink as much soda as you possibly could. This was sort of the beginning of the super-size phenomena that we still see going on today.
DAVIES: And you say that they're - they had research focused on heavy users.
MOSS: You know, within Coke they refer to their best customers not as, as you might think, consumers or loyal fans or something like that. They became known as heavy users. And Coke had a formula, and this is sort of a standard formula in the industry developed by an Italian scientist years ago, that basically said 20 percent of the people will use 80 percent of the product.
And as Coke saw it, it was worth their while more to focus on those 20 percent using 80 percent of the product than to try to generate more consumption by the other 80 percent, so that the heavy users of soda became those people who were drinking as many as 1,000 cans of soda a year, sometimes even more, and much of their marketing effort again was focused on those people maintaining that consumption level and/or growing it.
DAVIES: And then there's the up-and-down-the-block strategy. This involves convenience stores.
MOSS: It does. In so many American cities, especially, and out in the suburbs too, there's the thing called the C-store or convenience store, as it's called by the industry. This is where you can go and get fast food and some of the most convenient foods there are out there. You know, tragically, nutritionists will tell you, many of these convenience stories, you know, encircle schools and are built to ensnare children as they come in and out of the school.
And these are the places that were critical to the snack-food industry, not just soda but chips as well, because of the clientele. And the clientele were kids, teenagers, who were going out on their own for the first time with a little bit of change, you know, into an environment where they could make the decision about what to buy.
And for $1, $2, they could go in there and choose a soda or a snack and decide between brands. And this was critical to Coke, and it is to other companies, because those decisions early on, especially in the teen years, will develop brand loyalty. So a child who chooses Pepsi at age 13 or 14 is likely to maintain that brand loyalty through the rest of their life.
So the industry developed this phenom, marketing phenom called up-and-down-the-street marketing, which just really refers to their delivery trucks driving up and down the street and hitting all the convenience stores, bringing the food into the stores, stocking the shelves, making sure it's positioned right, maybe edging out a competitor here and there and just making sure that their products are the most accessible in the convenience store, and they're grabbing those kids as they're - before they develop a brand loyalty for a competitor.
DAVIES: So through all of these strategies, how much were they able to increase the - our consumption of soda?
MOSS: Consumption of soda soared over the years, and I don't think you can point to any one phenom that did that. But I think that all of these things did. The focus on teens, the focus on heavy users, on positioning soda better in supermarkets, for example, all of those - and the super-size phenomena - all of that contributed to our soaring consumption of soda at a very critical moment, which is that starting in the '80s, you know, society's dependence on convenience foods increased, you know, significantly.
So it sort of went hand in hand. People were turning more to convenient, fast food, easily accessible, calorically dense foods at a time when the industry was pushing those harder and harder, and they went hand in hand. You know, Jeffrey Dunn is convinced that soda correlates entirely with the growth of the - the surge of the obesity epidemic going back to 1980.
Other people, and certainly Coke, will say, hey, wait a minute, we're only one contribution to all the calories people are taking in, don't blame us for everything.
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who is off this week. We're speaking with investigative journalist Michael Moss, whose new book looks at how scientists at American food companies use sugar, fat and salt to create irresistible and often unhealthy processed foods. Moss spoke with many food industry scientists and executive - some of whom have regrets about their work. His book is called "Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us."
In 1989, Phillip Morris, the tobacco company, acquired two food giants, Kraft and General Foods. And of course it's interesting that this happened at a time when Americans were becoming more conscious of health issues, that these two big food companies are acquired by a company that was at the center of kind of the biggest health product controversy of the century, you know, with tobacco. How did the cigarette maker affect the way food companies made and marketed their products?
MOSS: Well, in two very different ways, and first Phillip Morris acquired General Foods, and then a couple of years later, in '89, merged that with Kraft. In the early years, Philip Morris was doing everything you might expect of them, which was they were holding regular meetings, they called it the corporate products meetings, where they would have their food division officials come in and tell them what new great things they were doing to increase consumption of their products. Philip Morris is about profits; it saw the food divisions as about profits.
Over time, though, Phillip Morris had a much different view - developed a much different view - of their food division, because as Philip Morris came under pressure for nicotine and cigarettes, it eventually started looking at the food divisions in light of the emerging obesity crisis. And there were moments in these internal documents where Philip Morris officials were saying to the food division, you guys are going to face a problem in terms of obesity of the same magnitude, if not more, than we're facing with nicotine right now, and you've got to start thinking about this issue and how you're going to deal with that.
DAVIES: Well, that's an interesting general proposition, but it runs up against, you know, the profit imperative. I mean you want to make stuff that tastes great and that people want to buy.
DAVIES: Did they want people to sacrifice profits - or what did it want them to do?
MOSS: Well, you're right. And how it unfolded at Kraft is a totally fascinating thing. Philip Morris was nudging Kraft to start reconsidering its dependence on salt, sugar, fat at the very moment a cabal of insiders at Kraft, including Michael Mudd, the official who led and organized the 1999 CEO meeting - they were pushing Kraft to meet the obesity issue head on. And the Philip Morris sort of nudging, you know, encouraged them to push ahead and ultimately this cabal at Kraft convinced the top officials of Kraft that they needed to do something. And I think their argument went along a number of lines, but one of them was, look, we're at risk of losing everything here if we don't give up a little bit.
So they set out to create this, you know, this anti-obesity initiative. They brought in 10 experts from all different fields to advise it on obesity and look at the ways that the company might be contributing to obesity. They created new stricter rules that limited their ability to market the most problematic foods to children. They looked at the packaging and decided that they were doing some things on packaging that were quite deceptive to consumers. For example, like other companies, on the back of the box or bag in the nutrient facts section, they would list, you know, the total numbers of fats and sugars and salts in terms of a serving size, knowing that people in many cases are more apt to eat far more than one serving, and this cabal at Kraft with their anti-obesity, you know, message said, look, let's do the math for people. Let's don't provide just the per-serving size, but let's tell them how many calories and how much sugar and how much salt in the bag total, because so many people are going to eat the whole bag.
And then finally, and this was sort of the most extraordinary thing, is that they put limits on the amounts of salt, sugar, fat that their scientists, their food technicians could add to food. And this was an extraordinary moment, as they described to me, because up until that point every ounce of effort at Kraft, as it is it is at other companies, was focused on making the foods, their foods, as attractive, as alluring, as addictive, if you will - that's not a word that they choose to use - as possible.
DAVIES: Before we talk about where that effort at Kraft went, let's talk just a little bit about how they and other manufacturers were using fat and other products. Because you write a lot about all of the research that they did to make food so alluring. And fat in particular, you said it doesn't have a bliss point like sugar, right? You can - there's almost no limit to how much fat you'll want in a food.
MOSS: Yes. That's one of the issues with fat. The other issue is that it's often invisible. Fat comes in oils, in solids, and the fat that nutritionists are concerned about, called saturated fat, because it's linked to heart disease, is a solid fat and it's not easily recognizable by us in our brains as being, you know, something you want to be careful about. So I write in the book about cheese as an example of a fat additive to foods that has contributed, no doubt significantly, to the obesity crisis. And it's sort of an amazing story when you go back, you know. In short, back in the '60s people started drinking less whole milk as a way of lowering their saturated fat and caloric intake. They started turning to skim milk or non-fat milk. That left the dairy industry with this huge and growing supply of milk fat which they extracted from the whole milk to make the low-fat varieties. You know, because the federal government has been subsidizing the dairy industry for decades and decades, the government stepped in and helped out. And as the food and dairy industry started turning that milk fat into cheese, first the federal government started buying up all the surplus cheese that people couldn't possibly eat, and then they created a marketing program for the dairy industry that encouraged - or that helped them market cheese to people so that people would eat more cheese. And it's one of the main reasons why cheese consumption in this country has tripled, up to as much to 33 pounds a year per person.
And this is not the cheese that we think about that you eat as an appetizer before dinner. One of the amazing things that they did was turn cheese into an ingredient. So it became a fat additive, if you will, to foods - processed foods in many corners of the grocery store - in order to increase the allure. Because - and you can tell I'm a real fat lover here because it has this thing called mouth feel. Mouth feel is what the industry calls the reaction you have when you taste cheese. It's the feeling of cheese in your mouth, the gooey, warm texture of cheese, especially when it's melted on a sandwich. Or it's the crunch, the amazingly attractive notion when you bite into a fried chicken. Fat has all these wonderful terms that you don't even think about but it's all, you know, its main function and the beauty to the industry is that it increases the attractiveness of their foods.
DAVIES: You also write that researchers would make modifications to fats, right, to essentially increase their absorption and make foods more appealing.
MOSS: That's happening a bit more on an experimental level now, and some of that is directed at using non-saturated fats in place of saturated fats. So ultimately it could have a beneficial effect on public health. I think when you look at the manipulation of the raw product, though, salt is a much better example because salt manufacturers have as many as 40 types of salt that are manipulated, created, sort of reformed and shaped in order to maximize the allure - or what they call in the salt world the flavor burst, so that you have salts that are powdered, salts that are chunk-sized. One of my personal favorites is a kosher salt. It looks like snow, but it's shaped like a pyramid with flat sides that stick better to the food. But here's the beauty of it; it's hollowed out on the inside so that your saliva has a much greater contact with the salt and thus the rush to the brain can hit your taste buds three times as fast as an ordinary salt as it dissolves in your mouth.
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is investigative reporter Michael Moss. His book is called "Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us."
Now, in doing the research for the book, I mean you write a number of times about going to food processing plants, with the consent and invitation of the processors themselves. And one of the things they did was to show you what some of our tasty snack foods would be like if we took out all that harmful stuff. Tell us about that.
MOSS: That was a real eye-opener for me. And one of my aims of this book, of course, was to really understand where the industry was coming from on these issues. 'Cause we all know that they're using lots of salt, sugar, fat, but I wanted to know exactly how and why they did this and why they in turn are sort of so dependent on these. So I asked Kellogg to show me why it couldn't cut back on salt, for example, any more than it was having success.
So they invited me out. I toured their rather secretive research and development project and we sat down and they made for me special versions of some of their most iconic products, especially made for me, without any salt in it to show me why they were having trouble cutting back. And I have to say it was a god-awful experience.
DAVIES: What did you eat?
MOSS: Well, starting with Cheez-Its, which normally I could eat all day long. The Cheez-Its without salt stuck to the roof of my mouth and I could barely swallow them. We moved on to frozen waffles, which tasted like straw. And the real moment came in tasting a cereal flake - I think it was Corn Flakes - which tasted hugely, awfully metallic. And it was almost like a filling had come out of my mouth and it was sloshing around. And before I could say anything, one of the people who was tasting it with me just got this expression on her face of horror. And it illustrated the miracle ingredient that salt is to these companies - which is that it's not there just for the flavor burst, but it's there for texture, for crunch and also to mask some of the inherent off notes, bad flavors that are part and parcel to the processed food industry.
DAVIES: Well, do you think they were deliberately setting you up? I mean if you take all of the salt out of a Cheez-It, it might be awful. But if you took two-thirds of it out, maybe it would work.
MOSS: Well, we pulled back a bit and I went to Kraft, for example, to look at their attempt to pull salt out of processed meat products. And they showed me that, look, we can take, you know, 10, 15, percent, maybe 20 percent out but then we hit a cliff and the taste reception and the appeal of the product just like plummets to zero.
DAVIES: So let's go back to the initiative at Kraft Foods to really address some of these health concerns by making changes in their marketing and advertising, and instructing their, you know, their food researchers to limit the salt, sugar and fat they could put into their foods. How well did it work? How did it affect the company's financial fortunes?
MOSS: You know, I think initially it set off really well. They are very proud of cutting back on, say, sugar in their Capri Sun fruit drink, and as I recall they came up with something like, you know, billions of calories saved by reducing the sugar in that. They've had other successes across the board. But ultimately they did run into this issue, which is they were trying to do this unilaterally in a fiercely competitive environment of the grocery store where there's 60,000 products all vying for space on the grocery shelf. And this played out most dramatically in the cookie aisle. Shortly after Kraft created its new limits on adding sugar and fat to including cookies, Hershey Company came along with a new chocolate cookie, Hershey was a chocolate company and decided it wanted to make cookies. And this forced Kraft to look at the fat content of its own Oreo cookies and others, because Hershey was using more fat than was currently in the cookies. And it put, you know, Kraft into this crisis. They did everything they could to sort of resist. They used richer cocoas that didn't have more fat than the ordinary ones did, but ultimately they had to budge a bit on their formula limits simply in order to compete with a competitor in the cookie aisle again, because they failed in their previous effort to get the industry to collectively down-formulate their products.
And again, they're beholden to Wall Street. This happened again with Campbell's Soup recently, when they tried to cut salt in some of their soups. Wall Street saw declining sales and said: What are you doing? And Campbell's had to backtrack and add back in salt to one variety of its soups. This is something the companies are going to be facing going forward.
DAVIES: So, we have a problem, here. I mean, we're all busy people, and so convenience is a plus. Processed foods meet that need. I mean, these products - salt, sugar and fat - are yummy. These scientists do a terrific job of making them irresistible. And it's clear that there's very serious health effects from all this stuff we're eating. So it raises a question, really, I think, of whether, you know, a competitive capitalist system is capable of dealing with it.
I mean, when one company cuts back, it loses market share. It's kind of hard not to conclude that the competition in the food industry is going to prevent companies from giving us healthier things to eat. What do you think? Do we need more government intervention, more - soda taxes?
MOSS: I was surprised to hear from the former CEO of Philip Morris, who is no friend of government and no friend of government regulations, tell me that, look, Michael. In the case of the processed food industry, I think what you're looking at is a total inability on their part to collectively decide to do the right thing by consumers on the health profile of their products. And in this case, I can see how you might need government regulation, if nothing else, to give the companies cover from the pressure from Wall Street.
I know in my own life, I, by no means, am in a position to give up processed foods. My wife and I both work outside the home. Our kids are eight and 13. We have a crazy morning schedule, like so many Americans do.
And I'm hoping this book just gives people more information as they walk into the grocery store, so they can walk out with their good health, because there are alternatives, even in the cereal aisle. One of the things I encourage people to do is spend more time on the ends of the - the end aisles of the supermarket where the fresh vegetables and fruits are, and to maybe think about ways, too, that preparing whole foods, you know, maybe isn't all that inconvenient as the food companies have said.
I've been experimenting with plain oatmeal. You can throw it in a pan in the morning, put in some water, let it cook while you're making your coffee or starting to make the home lunches. Five minutes later it's done, and then you have total control over the amount of raisins or apples or sugar that you're going to add to it. And it's really not that much more convenient than throwing prepared, you know, presweetened cereal into a bowl.
And so, you know, I'm hoping that by reading this book, people will find ways to level the playing field in their own shopping and cooking habits, to pull back, you know, in lieu of more government regulation, to just sort of empower themselves. Because ultimately, you know, we're deciding what to buy, how much to eat, and that's a hugely empowering thing, when you just start thinking about it.
DAVIES: Well, Michael Moss, it's been interesting. Thanks so much for spending some time with us.
MOSS: Oh, thanks for having me. I really appreciate it.
DAVIES: Michael Moss is an investigative reporter for the New York Times. His new book is called "Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.