Interview with Michael Moss, Author of Salt Sugar Fat

This is a guest post from my husband, Jason Leake, and is part of his interview series for the blog. To learn more about Jason check out our team page.

Michael Moss (photo by Tony Cenicola)

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Michael Moss

Today I’m talking with Michael Moss, who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting in 2010, and was a finalist for the prize in 2006 and 1999. He is also the recipient of a Loeb Award and an Overseas Press Club citation. Before coming to the New York Times, he was a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, Newsday, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. I read his book, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, in preparation for this interview and wish its contents could somehow be required reading for anyone who sets foot in a grocery store. More on that later…let’s get right to the questions.

Salt Sugar Fat book by Michael Moss1) What’s your latest book, Salt Sugar Fat, all about, and what are you hoping to accomplish with it?

It’s an exposé of the processed food industry, based on a trove of confidential documents that put me at the table of the largest food manufacturers as they were planning, plotting and formulating new products. These documents, which I fully footnote in the book, in turn, enabled me to identify the key players in processed foods – scientists, marketers, CEOs – and convince them to talk to me and reveal even more secrets about their heavy dependence on salt, sugar and fat to maximize the allure of their products. I’m hoping the book is a wake-up call for the processed food industry, and at the same time empowering to consumers, in that simply knowing everything the companies are doing to compel consumption of their products is in itself a powerful tool in learning to shop and eat more healthily.

2) You went to great lengths to do the research for this book. When did you first know you were going to write it, and what drove you to continue for 3 1/2 years and travel the world to dig up the story?

I was writing about a surge in outbreaks of deadly pathogens in processed foods, which involved the food giants losing control over their ingredients, when one of my best sources in the industry said to me over dinner in Seattle: “You know, Michael, as tragic as these episodes are, there is another public health crisis afoot in the things this industry intentionally adds to their foods, over which they have absolute control.” He was talking about salt, and that led me to examine sugar and fat as well, which together form the holy grail for the processed food industry. And indeed, the statistics are staggering – from one in three adults being clinically obese, to the estimated annual cost of $300 billion in added medical expenses and lost productivity. And while we always knew that eating too much of what I like to call “the foods we hate to love” would make us overweight or otherwise ill, we now know from these documents and interviews that the food companies have known this for years and years – even as they continued adding heaps of salt, sugar and fat to their products.
3) What are the advertising tricks the processed food industry uses to sell more products? I’m talking about things like line extensions, isolated health claims, down the block campaigns, marketing targeted at kids, etc.

You’ve named the big ones here. The industry views products such as “low-fat yogurt” as offering consumers a choice, and thereby meeting whatever ethical standard anyone wants to saddle the companies with. But many low-fat yogurts have as much sugar as ice cream, and they typify the practice of dialing back on one of the three holy grails only to increase the other two in order to maintain allure. They also typically do little to diminish the sales of the regular, full-fat or full-sugar or full-salt versions of their products, which typically get the most prominent display in grocery stores, and the industry fondly calls these better-for-you versions “line extensions,” fully expecting them to bring added excitement and sales to the entire brand.

4) In the late ‘90s big tobacco manufacturers, including Philip Morris, lost a $365 billion dollar lawsuit. You wrote,

The states accused the tobacco industry of a wide range of deceptive and fraudulent practices, and they rallied behind Mississippi’s formidable attorney general, Mike Moore, who said that the lawsuit was ‘premised on a simple notion: You caused the health crisis, you pay for it.’

What is Philip Morris’s current role in the food industry and what parallel do you see with cigarettes and processed foods?

Philip Morris played a rather extraordinary and surprising role in food. It became the largest food manufacturer in the 80s when acquiring General Foods and then Kraft, and for the first two decades, the tobacco executives did what you might have expected from them: they encouraged their food managers to sell as much as possible, and even lent them some of their marketing tools. But starting in the late 90s, Philip Morris became the first tobacco company to embrace government regulation, as a way of avoiding the erosion of public trust. And when they did so, these same tobacco officials turned to their food managers and began warning them that they were going to face as great if not greater trouble from salt, sugar, fat and obesity, as the tobacco side of Philip Morris was then facing with nicotine. And the tobacco managers began encouraging the food managers to reduce their dependence on salt, sugar, and fat. Kraft did undertake some extraordinary anti-obesity initiatives in 2003, just as Philip Morris was starting to sell its investment. Philip Morris ended its ownership of Kraft in 2008, and is no longer a player in processed food.

5) What happens behind closed doors at processed food companies when consumer activists speak out against them and the dangers of processed foods? What are their go-to public relations strategies?

There is a certain amount of circling the wagons. They will typically point to their efforts to create those better-for-you versions of their products. But more importantly, within all of these companies there are cabals of insiders who truly care about their health of consumers, and are working from within to make meaningful changes. So from those folks, I hear quiet cheers as the public becomes more forceful in voicing its concerns about processed foods.

6) Robert I-San Lin, former chief scientist at Frito Lay “was very much disturbed by the experience of what money can buy in the U.S. … everything is for sale if you have enough money.” What did he mean by this?

Dr. Lin is a pure scientist who found himself working on corporate science, and he was referring to the food industry’s ability to enlist other scientists in defending their products and promoting their causes. At the time Dr. Lin was at Frito-Lay in the early 80s, this entailed rebuffing efforts in Washington to regulate salt. Dr. Lin viewed Frito-Lay and its parent company, PepsiCo, as basically good companies with misguided views on salt, and remains critical of “experts” who speak on behalf of companies without having sufficient scientific knowledge.

7) I was surprised at the level of access you had to top business executives and food scientists, and by how much information they revealed. Why do you think they were willing to tell their stories?

In part because of the documents I obtained, which meant I was going to write about them whether they spoke to me or not. And in part because many of them have come to have some regret about their work, not because they intended to make us obese or otherwise ill, but because they invented many of these products to be occasional treats, in a more innocent era when our dependence on them was not nearly as great as it is today.

8) It’s hard to know who to trust sometimes, but the Center for Science in the Public Interest came up many times in your book as a consumer advocate driving real change – and an organization actually feared by the food industry. Tell me about some of their major battles over the years. And who else is looking out for the consumer?

The center waged the first battle over sugar back in the late 1970s, strategically asking the Federal Trade Commission to curb the marketing of sugary cereals and other foods to kids. It waged the earliest battles over salt in the 1980s, urging the Food and Drug Administration to regulate salt for its potential health hazards. And it has picked a series of legal fights with food manufacturers over their marketing practices, successfully causing many about-faces by these same companies. I find their work to be refreshingly grounded in nutrition science, as well as political acumen, but there are numerous groups fighting on behalf of consumers on all levels, including one in New York called, which is teaching food and nutrition to inner-city kids, dressed up in the politics of multi-national corporate strategy to engage the kids.

8) Do you believe that processed foods are the root cause of the obesity epidemic (and a host of other Western diseases)?

What I write about in the book, starting with the secret meeting of food company executives in 1999, is that the industry itself is full of astute insiders who believe processed foods are at least partly responsible for the epidemic, and fully accountable for coming up with solutions.

9) How do government subsidies play a part?

I’m exploring this now more fully in my ongoing reporting on food for The New York Times, and will have to get back to you. But stay tuned. It’s a really interesting area, already giving me some surprise.

10) Who’s responsible for getting us out of this mess? The government? The food industry? Or the consumer? As you say, “…we, ultimately, have the power to make choices. After all, we decide what to buy. We decide how much to eat.”

I like the notion that I can now walk into the store armed with my book and make healthier choices about what to buy and eat. And I think we’re at a tipping point where consumers are becoming more vocal about their concern about what they put into their bodies. It’s this vocalization that will cause either the government or the companies to act, because both are inherently risk averse, and need a strong wind at their backs to sail forth on reforms.

Many thanks to Michael Moss for writing this book and for taking the time to share his thoughts with our readers. Salt, Sugar, Fat is an even handed, yet alarming, insider account of just what goes into influencing you to make a purchase. I too wish to explore the topic of government subsidies in greater detail, but the fact remains that if you walk into a grocery store stuck on auto-pilot the purchases you make may not be in your best interest, but will be no accident. Once you know just how calculated the food formulation and marketing really are (not to mention the lobbying efforts), you might just feel a bit taken advantage of. Food companies have effectively changed what our society considers “normal,” resulting in group think. But you keep buying it, yes?

I urge you to please read and share this book (and this interview) with parents, spouses, friends – anyone you feel may be stuck on auto-pilot. They’ll be hard pressed not to come away viewing the food industry, and their shopping habits, through a different lens. If you’ve already read the book (which can be purchased here on Amazon), how did it affect you? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

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14 thoughts on “Interview with Michael Moss, Author of Salt Sugar Fat”

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  1. I was first introduced to this topic by an article written by Michael Moss called “The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food.” I found the article and this interview shocking, and I look forward to reading his books. I am constantly amazed at how easily we consumers are manipulated and that is something that seriously worries me. I believe that a greater understanding of where our food comes from is essential in improving our health. However, I am wary of people blaming food producers and government subsidies for these problems. Producers grow food to make a living, and they sell where they can find the best available price. To say that their management practices somehow led to this “obesity epidemic” is removing blame from the perpetrators of this deceptive and manipulative practice to farmers who are just trying to feed the world and their families.

  2. I can’t tell you how many times I said “OMG” in my head while I was reading this book. It amazes me how ruthless these companies can be in pursuit of the almighty dollar. One of the things that really stands out is the systematic way “Betty Crocker” convinced women to use products in a box instead of cooking from scratch. I’m just stunned at the lengths the food giants will go to.

  3. Thank you for reviewing the book and for this interview. It’s on my wish list and library list. I’m trying not to let my kids pick up on my fears of what is allowed to be sold, and I’m trying to “discourage” them from eating all of the “good” foods (insert choking noise) they want to enjoy with their friends, but all I want to do is snatch the bag of cheetos away from them and read them something like for bedtime stories!!! ;) To Real Foods!! :D

  4. I saw Mr. Moss on Dr. Oz a few weeks ago while I was running at the gym. I’m always skeptical of what is on that show, but I think I might have to read this book. I found your blog after reading a few of Michael Pollan’s books and “Googling” real food, and I’d like my husband to be a little more on board. I bet he would respond well to Mr. Moss’ book. Thank you for the interview.

  5. Great interview. Even in such a short format, a whole lot of good information was presented.
    I’ll be very interested in what Michael Moss winds up writing about agricultural subsidies. When people walk into fast food joints and get their $1.00 burger off the “dollar menu” they think they can afford that easier than cooking food from scratch. Well when you add in the money the government gave to the large agri-business that paid for corn to feed the unhealthy factory farmed cattle, then add in the government’s health care costs due to the excess sugar and salt you consumed when you bought the “combo meal”, the cost is WAY above the $3.00 plus tax you think you paid.
    Everyone should be scared senseless of a $1.00 burger!

  6. Thankfully walking through the weekly grocery store on auto-pilet takes me from the produce section, to organic dairy to the checkout. Mind you we have a lot of staples in the house already, like local humanely raised meat, whole wheat bread, pasta, flour, etc. But, if I’m not sure what we actually need, I usually just get basic stock-up fresh produce: melon, berries, bananas, apples, red grapes, avocado, lemon, broccoli, cucumbers, green peppers, grape tomatoes, pea pods and organic milk. Thankfully the farmers market is getting good so I have been getting a lot more local produce, yum!

    I put the book on my to read list.

  7. I just finished reading this book and I found parts of the book shocking. I’ve always known that processed food was not healthy, but I had no idea the extent of it and I wonder if it is that way for other people as well.

    Between the government down-playing the dangers of processed food and the deceptive marketing practices of the food manufacturers, I don’t think the American public has been educated correctly about what they are eating so that they are able to make good choices. After reading this book, I will never look at food or food labels the same way again.

  8. I just finished the book a few days ago. I loved it! It is incredibly thorough, but that’s what makes it such an interesting read. I must say, however, that our family switched to real food about 3-4 months ago, so for me, the book was a good validation of our choice. I think if I had read the book when we were still following our old way of eating, I would have been horrified (but then maybe we would have made the change sooner). I highly recommend it!

  9. While I find this book intriguing, I also think that people have to be careful and not use this info as an excuse to not take responsibility for their own decisions. I feel our society often looks for any excuse to not take responsibility. People can choose to simply not buy the processed food. Their health is their responsibility.

    1. Hi Juliette – I agree that our health is our responsibility, and that was actually the impetus for question #10. In addition to educating ourselves (through books like Salt Sugar Fat, among other sources), I feel it is important to vote with our dollars (for healthier products) and also pressure the government for better regulation and labeling. As another commenter pointed out, the choices of our fellow citizens affect all of us through increased health care costs.

      I really feel if people pull back the curtain and see how they are being manipulated by the food industry they will make better choices for themselves. Certainly the food industry can do better, but these companies exist to make money, and I totally get that. The best thing we can do for ourselves is to prepare our own real food meals instead of outsourcing cooking to the processed food companies.

  10. Thanks for a great review – I have put the list at the top of my ‘to-read’ list, and to share with all of my friends. The more I learn about this manipulation of our appetites and emotional relationships with food, the more I want to move to a 100% self-reliant/whole food based diet for myself, my family and anyone that will listen :)

  11. aaron slemboski

    Thanks Lisa and Michael Moss for the interview.

    Sounds like a great book. Can’t wait to read it.

  12. Looks like a book that needs to be read in my house- I truly hope that the correlation between tobacco and food is true to the extent that changes are forced and we’re able to live healthier as a country.