Who's Winning the Hunger Games?

Spring 2013

Who's Winning the Hunger Games?
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Michael Moss explains how Nabisco, Kraft, and General Mills got us to crave all the wrong things.

By Matthew Budman

Just Say No

Matthew Budman is editor-in-chief of TCB Review. During supermarket visits, he is often able to resist the siren call of Oreos.

moss3For years, New York Times reporter Michael Moss has been delivering the inside story on what we eat, and the result hasn’t always made readers hungry—in 2010, he won a Pulitzer Prize for “relentless reporting on contaminated hamburger and other food safety issues.” Two words: pink slime.

In his new book, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us (Random House), Moss writes about far more appealing grocery items: Lay’s Potato Chips and Dr Pepper and Snickers and Hot Pockets and Chips Ahoy! and Pop-Tarts and Capri Sun and Frosted Mini-Wheats. As much as we know we should bypass those colorful packages—really, we should skip those store aisles altogether—most of us can’t help being sucked in. Why? After years of manufacturers’ loading up processed foods with salt, sugar, and fat, we’re hardwired to crave those ingredients.

Indeed, corporate food scientists have spent decades searching for each item’s bliss point (“the precise amount of sweetness—no more, no less—that makes food and drink most enjoyable”), and now any effort by the company to tinker with the formula, especially to make the products less unhealthful, results in their tasting a little . . . off.

Moss takes on who’s responsible for causing today’s obesity epidemic—and how we can move forward to begin solving it. Fortunately, he is no ascetic, which becomes clear when talking about, as the book describes, companies developing “frozen pizza that boasted two, three, and four different cheeses . . . and then they tucked more cheese into the crust.” “Oh, my gosh,” he says. “The crust. Oh!” And then Moss explains both the appeal and why that appeal is so dangerous: “The melted, gooey feeling you get—there are nerves in the back of your mouth that pick up on that and go right to the brain’s pleasure center, just like sugar. Except that fat has twice the calories as sugar, so it’s a real problem. Today, cheese is the number-one source of saturated fat in the American diet.” Just when you were thinking that pizza was sounding particularly good . . .

Moss spoke from the offices of The New York Times.

I’m sure this wasn’t your intention, but reading Salt Sugar Fat made me hungry for salt, sugar, and fat.

I’ve heard that! And I have to confess: One of my downfalls is potato chips, and when I was writing and researching the book, I would indulge. My message is not about avoiding all processed foods, because there’s no way I could hew to that line.

It’s hard to read about Oreo Fudge Sundae Cremes without craving one. Must be even harder to write about them.

And you have to appreciate the science and effort that goes into them. On some level, these scientists and marketing people are geniuses.

That’s what their main job is: to sell products and feed people. And it took a while for their own people to become cognizant and aware of the growing obesity problem.

At one point you write: “Picture in your mind a hot pretzel with big white crystals of salt on top—”

Mmm.

“—your brain is probably, at this very moment, sending you signals of pleasure.”

Exactly. Maybe the industry will thank me for this book.

Has working on the book changed your eating and buying habits?

Well, for research I would go shopping with my two boys, who are 8 and 13, and watch how they maneuver through the grocery store and see what they’re drawn to, and that certainly confirmed everything I’d heard from market researchers. And I’ve become more cognizant of what we’re eating and feeding our kids, in part because there are lots of choices in the grocery store.

Are you now that guy who can’t resist telling friends and family what’s really in everything they eat and drink?

No—I would never tolerate such a person in my life! There’s a funny story: I had been writing about E. coli contaminations in meat, and my youngest, Will, had just started kindergarten and had relished the school-lunch hamburgers until he became versed in spelling E. coli, and at one point the dinner conversation turned to cookies, and Will said indignantly, “Dad, you’re not going to start writing about sugar, are you?” Kids are so over the moon about sugar; their bodies are hardwired for it, which explains why so many things in the grocery store have become sweet.moss4

We sneak 100 percent whole-wheat bread into the kids’ diets, and they don’t seem to mind, though they draw the line at whole-wheat pasta. They will not touch that. So you have to give and take. And my wife the other day said to the kids, “Cereal is OK, but when we buy it, go for the cereal with five grams or less of sugar per serving.” That engages them in the hunt and helps them participate, and sure enough, there are great cereals out there with less sugar. And I’ve been trying to work oatmeal into the morning family routine.

Isn’t that time-consuming?

“Convenience” foods are a bit of an exaggeration. You know, it all started with a fabulous presentation that Charles Mortimer, the CEO of General Foods, gave to none other than The Conference Board in 1955—the year I was born—all about convenience, with a capital C, as he said. He’s the person who coined the phrase convenience foods. He was so convinced that this was the way to go that he was eager to share his vision with all other aspects of consumer goods. He preached convenience. And back at General Foods, he drove his scientists to find every which way to make food more convenient; things like Tang emerged because of his vision.

So we have Charles Mortimer to thank for Tang.

And The Conference Board, maybe.

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The Conference Board Review is the quarterly magazine of The Conference Board, the world's preeminent business membership and research organization. Founded in 1976, TCB Review is a magazine of ideas and opinion that raises tough questions about leading-edge issues at the intersection of business and society.