Why Potato Chips Taste So Damn Good and Other Truths About Processed Foods

Pulitzer Prize-winning, New York Times investigative reporter Michael Moss may have temporarily dodged a bullet. Any other week you’d expect a big, fat backlash against his new book Salt Sugar and Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, a stunning and impeccably researched indictment of the $1 trillion processed food industry, profiteering Wall Street backers and their joint effort to put profits above public health.

He's pretty much accusing them of trying to kill us all.

But all the food biggies are otherwise occupied at the moment battling back international headlines about horse meat in IKEA Swedish meatballs and the discovery of global mystery meat (donkey, goat and water buffalo) in burgers and sausages worldwide.

Ironically, it was Moss’s investigation of the transgressions of the U.S. meat industry in threatening us all with e.Coli and Salmonella poisoning that won him his first Pulitzer. Now that feels like small change compared to the issues raised in Salt Sugar and Fat, four years in the making and full of insider interviews and damning reams of internal communications.

We caught up with Michael Moss between appearances on Dr. Oz and cover articles in the Sunday Times Magazine to discuss what he’s learned about smart shopping, the banality of evil and potato chips.

iVillage: Any backlash yet from General Mills or any other of the food giants? Did they get in your way with publishing or research?

Michael Moss: Not yet, although the companies have had their hands full with the horse meat scandal. Surprisingly, they didn’t stand in the way of my research. I had happened upon a treasure trove of thousands of documents in the publically available archives created by attorneys for lawsuits against the tobacco industry.

What few people realized is that some of the biggest food companies were swept into this archive via Philip Morris, which for 20 years owned General Foods and Kraft. The archive was filled with strategy papers and memos and internal communiques at Phillip Morris’s food division. Nobody thought to look for it.

Philip Morris bought General Foods in 1986 and Kraft in 1989 and held both until the mid-2000s -- through the height of obesity surge. Their arc is pretty stunning in the book because in the end, they were the ones to liken salt, sugar and fat in foods to nicotine in cigarettes. Out of self-preservation and on the verge of losing all public trust, they argued for Kraft to address the obesity epidemic by scaling back marketing to children, increasing disclosures on packaging and putting caps on the amounts of salt, sugar, fat that food engineers could use. But they were the only ones to make these efforts and came under fierce pressure as sales stagnated.

iVillage: Do you have any guilty pleasures when it comes to junk food?

MM: Potato chips! In researching the book I’d find myself drawn irresistibly to my potato chip stash. They’re nice and salty, which tells the brain to eat more, and loaded with fat, which has twice the calories of sugar and doesn’t alert [the] brain to overeating. But potato chips hit the trifecta, or maybe I should say the unholy trinity, because they’re also loaded with starch, which converts to sugar the instant it hits your tongue. And glucose spikes lead to cravings. The potato chip is the single largest contributor to weight gain in the country. It’s not for nothing that Lay’s slogan is “you can’t eat just one.”

iVillage: I taste a Dorito and retch from all the salt but my kids scarf them down any chance they get. What’s happening to everybody’s taste buds?

MM: Companies have re-shaped all of our palettes to not only tolerate but to expect sweetness and saltiness. Salt excites taste buds in the brain and helps companies avoid more expensive spices and ingredients. And companies test sugar loads on kids for products aimed at kids, they’re engineered to hit higher “bliss” points.

iVillage: What’s a bliss point?

MM: We all know that salt, sugar and fat are being heaped upon us, but the concerted nature of the effort is what came as a surprise, with company scientists working feverishly to come up with the perfect formulation for a blissful, optimally craveable, addictive food. And that’s aside from all the packaging and marketing that can fool even smart shoppers. Even seemingly healthy looking items can be loaded with salt, sugar and fat.

iVillage: Once hooked, is there an easy way to go back? Will it be like running a methadone clinic? Is there any prescription for getting unhooked from all this bliss-inducing, optimized food?

MM: The good news is that it’s pretty easy to wean yourself. Stop for six weeks and then you’ll find almost everything in the grocery store is too salty, too sweet, too fatty. It’s far easier for us to get off of salt than for the companies, which are hopelessly hooked on it as a cheap ingredient.

iVillage: You worked on this for four years. Have you noticed any changes for the better?

MM: Over the last few years, companies have come under increasing consumer pressure because people are growing more concerned. There have certainly been overtures by the companies to issue versions of mainstream products with less salt, less sugar. But they are still under increasing pressure from Wall Street to boost profits.

iVillage: Are you understating the role of personal accountability in the obesity epidemic? Parents should know better, if not their children at this point. Certainly grown-ups should be able to figure out that lots of processed, sugary, salty and fatty foods are making us fat and sick.

MM: I’m focused on food companies because they themselves have acknowledged responsibility in private meetings and they are accountable for coming up with the necessary solutions.

iVillage: What about government responsibility?

MM: Food experts make a convincing case that the U.S. government needs to shift subsidies that go into processed foods (corn, wheat) over to organically-grown fruits and vegetables. They argue that even the most well-intentioned of shoppers is going to be drawn to lower prices and the playing field needs to be leveled. The food industry doesn’t want their subsidies handed over to small blueberry farmers. They say they need those subsidies to survive. Profit margins are smaller than you think, they say. We can blame this on Wall Street and the incredible addiction to profits that food companies are wedded to.

iVillage: Where does the organic food industry figure in this discussion? Are you safe if you’re eating organic? I’m guessing not.

MM: Organic foods are not necessarily lower in salt, sugar or fat; they are lower in pesticides. So, if you’re eating organic, you can’t bank on products being any better than conventional ones when it comes to this issue.

iVillage: What do you do to keep yourself and your kids healthy? Are you forever scrutinizing food labels, banning soda, putting the kibosh on the chips?

MM: I have two boys, aged 8 and 13, and we don’t ban, but we do limit. Sodas as special treats and my wife Eve told them to limit cereals to 5 grams of sugar or less…like Cheerios.

iVillage: Do you think schools should bring back the home economics/cooking classes of our youth to teach today’s children to prepare their own foods?

MM: I write in an early chapter about the demise of Home Ec, where both boys and girls used to learn how to shop and cook food from scratch. I am convinced one of the key solutions has to be bringing that back.

iVillage: Any shopping tips for getting out of the grocery store with your family’s health intact?

MM:

  • It really pays to go in with a list. The companies and grocers have teamed up to provoke spontaneous decisions, putting the most tempting products in the hottest spots, like aisle ends and near the cash register. 
  • Stick to the outer margins of the store, with the fresh veggies and fruits and least processed meats and dairy. Beware of the center aisles.
  • Eye level is where the heaviest salt, sugar, fat loads are placed. Reach high and low for the healthier items.
  • Watch out for the tiny serving sizes in the nutrition facts box, which let companies use smaller numbers in disclosing the salt, sugar, fat calorie loads. Many items, especially snacks, are so alluring we tend to eat two or three servings at once, and will underestimate the [salt, sugar, fat] intake.
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