When New York Times reporter Michael Moss started delving into why the foods we eat contain so much salt, sugar and salt, he didn’t expect his investigation to leave him empathizing with the food industry.
“At one point I asked, ‘Everyone wants you to cut back on sodium because of high blood pressure. Why don’t you just do it?”’
Food executives invited him in to taste foods they’d specially formulated for him sans these ingredients.
“My favourite moment was going to Kellogg in Battle Creek, Michigan where they sat me down and made for me special versions of their products without any salt in them at all. It really impressed upon me their problem,” the author of Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Ustold the Growing Local conference in Winnipeg last week.
“It was the most horrific dining experience you could ever imagine,” he said.
Snack foods stuck to the roof of his mouth or were hard to even swallow, he said. Frozen waffles tasted and looked like straw.
That’s when he realized how addicted the processed food industry is to keeping their customers hooked on food ingredients that are bad for their health.
And it’s why food scientists study how to make salt trigger the taste buds faster and how to shape fat globules to enhance mouth feel and increase the cravings we have for certain foods, he said.
They’re continuously working on how the human brain responds to sugar, enabling product makers to engineer into foods what’s called “the bliss point” or precise amount of sugar to derive maximum satisfaction.
“Suddenly I realized that this wasn’t a $1-trillion industry that was this impenetrable fortress,” he said.
“These are companies that are more hooked than I am and we are on salt, sugar and fat. Their dependence has now put them in a real problem, as more people are concerned about what they’re putting into their bodies and demanding that the companies come up with healthier products. They’re scrambling and realizing it’s not going to be an easy thing to do.”
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Particularly problematic is reducing sodium in meat products.
“When meat gets rewarmed, as in canned soup, the fat oxidizes and gives off what they call warmed-over flavour (WOF),” he said. “Sometimes they pronounced it ‘woof’ instead of ‘wof’ because they describe that flavour as having the taste of wet dog hair.”
The solution is “a little bit more salt, of course,” he added.
The award-winning journalist spent years reporting on food-borne illness outbreaks and troubling holes in U.S. federal food safety regulations before becoming interested in obesity as a public health crisis.
“As tragic as these incidents are, there’s this other public health crisis involving things we intentionally put into our products and over which we have absolute control,” he said.
Gaining access to confidential files and sources deep inside the the industry, Moss began to uncover not only why, but how food makers use salt, fat and sugar as “weapons they deploy, certainly to defeat their competitors but also to keep us coming back for more.”
Sugar is now ubiquitous as the food industry has gone on to put in those bliss points for foods that previously weren’t sweet, he said.
“So bread has sugar and a bliss point for sweetness. Some yogurts have as much sugar as ice cream,” he said.
“What it has done is taught us and habituated us to expect sweetness in everything we eat. And this is especially true of kids. ”
Every year the average American now consumes 33 pounds of cheese, and 70 pounds of sugar. Daily intake of salt is 8,500 milligrams, or double the recommended amount, he said.
Moss said he was especially struck to discover how many food company executives professed to not eat their own products.
“Part of it is a socio-economic difference,” he said “But it’s also a real awareness of the power of their products.”
In an interview, Moss said he believes we’re reaching “a tipping point” on the issue and that industry is starting to get it.
“More and more people care about what they’re putting in their bodies, and it’s getting translated a little bit into purchasing decisions,” he said, adding that a competitive business pays attention to that.
“It doesn’t take much to alarm the food manufacturers,” he said. “The slightest drop in sales will send them scrambling.
“The challenge for them is that they’re even more dependent on using gobs of salt, sugar and fat than we are. It’s going to be really difficult for them to come up with some truly healthy versions.”