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Food For Thought with Kat | ‘Hooked’ on Michael Moss: Interview & Book Review

(As originally published by Vermont News & Media.)

“In their rise to power, the processed food companies have wielded salt, sugar and fat not just in pursuing profits through the cheapest means of production. Theirs has been a concerted effort to reach the primeval zones of our brain where we act by instinct rather than rationalization.” Michael Moss, ‘Hooked’


“Bet you can’t eat just one!” This slogan has challenged millions to a duel between desire and will power, and it’s one I certainly have never won. I can eat one small slice of a baked potato and leave the rest, but serve me one crispy, perfectly salted chip, no matter the flavor, and I’ll be back for more in exactly 3.2 seconds.


It’s not our fault that we can’t eat just one. This is by design. Processed food companies have an arsenal of tools at their disposal and work deep behind the scenes to exploit our most basic instincts. Investigative journalist, Michael Moss, has unearthed a trove of shocking information that will no doubt leave you wondering how things got out of control and whether they will ever change.


Sour Secrets.


While it’s no secret that processed food companies (Big Food,) have ways in which they get us to come back for more, the secret lies in the way they do it. Like most of us, I have been wary of all things artificial: colors, flavors, sweeteners and those not-so-natural natural flavors. Things I can’t pronounce in the ingredients list usually make me put a product back on the shelf. Abbreviated chemicals like TBHQ and BHT cause a slew of health issues, though I couldn’t tell you what they stood for, so back on the shelf those go too. In a perfect world, we would shop the perimeter of the market and eat nothing but organic veggies, fruits, dairy and meats, but if there’s one thing we’ve learned recently, it’s that the world is anything but perfect.


Mr. Moss exposes the processed food industry’s use of even the most basic ingredients to exploit our cravings. They use building blocks like salt, sugar and fat in studied quantities that are so unnatural, they tap into our biology and instincts to manipulate our wants and desires. They use these ingredients, and those derived from them, to affect taste, smell and texture. These are the very things that send us to the moon over food.


They’ve coined terms like ‘moreishness’ and ‘craveability’. They have scientifically plotted out a mathematical equation to attain our ‘bliss point’ – the perfect level of sugar - not too little, not too much - that registers in our pleasure centers as just that…bliss.


With their conniving, chess-like moves, Big Food stays one step ahead of us. Once we catch onto them, their strategy makes an about face, and there we are playing catch up yet again. The trophy for them? Profits. For us, however, this is life or death.


Meeting Moss

Having spent the week researching his areas of expertise, watching his videos and interviews and even lighting Fritos on fire as he does on his website, I feel like old friends when Michael Moss joins me on video chat. I’m honored by his presence, since, as a Pulitzer Prize winner, his time is in great demand. I’m eager to ask my questions because if anyone has the answers, it is he. His tousled white hair and jet-black eyebrows reveal eyes emblazoned with knowledge and an endless quest for the truth. Moss seems passionate not only about his current subject matter, but about life in general, as evidenced by his declaration that he ‘does a little mountain climbing’ in his spare time.


Mr. Moss reports his findings methodically and presents complicated information in a step-by-step format, drawing it all together with a bow at the end of his second book, “Hooked”. He delivers profound information, sounding the alarms in his calm, collected manner. He’s no stranger to uncovering and unveiling shocking truths about food safety, as he was awarded the Pulitzer in 2010, when he traced the source of an E. coli contamination that left a young woman paralyzed.


In each chapter, Moss hands us the pieces to a jigsaw puzzle that, when put together, reveal the ransom note written to us by the food companies, as they hold us hostage with their packaged foods. We’re scared of Big Brother? Welcome to Big Food. It may be just as bad, if not worse because, while, they’re not listening to us in our homes, they’re feeding us. And they’re feeding us lies.


Addicted?


As a result of lawsuits brought against Philp Morris (who owned Kraft and Nabisco among other food companies,) in the 1990s, troves of secret, internal papers suddenly became accessible to the public. Moss came across them in his research. Fascinated, he meticulously combed through them, uncovering trade secrets and phrases coined by the processed food industry about how to get us hooked on their products. These trade secrets had been implemented over decades to get us to come back for more. With food companies’ profits rising, eventually growing into a $1.5 trillion industry, they were obviously effective. How could they get their efforts to work even better?


In his book, Moss ponders the definition of ‘addiction’ and settles on one drawn up by a Philip Morris exec. Addiction is “a repetitive behavior that some people find difficult to quit.” Like cigarettes then, is it possible to be addicted to food? Moss has come full circle, he says, to believe that yes, Twinkies can be as addictive as a pack of Reds, if not more so. Unlike drugs and alcohol, we can’t just kick food to the curb, but processed foods have been designed to reach the deepest crevices of our brains. From the moment we spot the label, to the second we open the package, everything about them is intended to elicit memories and desires, and to hit the perfect sweet spot once we’ve opened it. It takes 10 seconds for a cigarette to excite our brain. For sugar? 600 milliseconds.


Sugar is powerful and, albeit not altogether bad in moderation, but it’s only one tool these companies use to exploit our most basic instincts. They create food with the perfect combination of salt, sugar and fat, even if it’s not a sweet food, catapulting us to our ultimate level of physical and mental bliss. Food companies make these foods cheap because we are programmed to love quick, inexpensive, calorie-dense foods. While not all of us identify as bargain shoppers, instinctually we are programmed to obtain foods that will give us the most energy in the easiest, fastest way possible. As hunters and gatherers, that meant we could expend less body fat (our emergency stores,) by picking up what was more easily accessible rather than bounding after the harder to reach prey. Moss says we are tantalized by convenience, speed and variety as basic needs as well. Identifying and trying new things was an important skill for survival. Before food was delivered to us in colorful cardboard containers, if we didn’t find it on our own, we didn’t survive.


Variety Unveiled.


When on Weight Watchers in college, I returned home from the grocery, my bags overflowing with various colorfully dressed items. I couldn’t wait to dive into them. I literally wanted to taste everything and sometimes I did. Moss delivers the realization that this, too, was by design. By the early 2000s, the largest processed food companies had bought up diet brands like Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig. These ‘diet’ foods still had the combo of salt, sugar and fat to hit our bliss point and keep us coming back for more. ‘Make ‘em fat, get ‘em skinny.’ What an amazing business plan.


Big Food has found a way to exploit our desire for the cheap convenience of high calorie variety to their benefit. We are programmed to overeat every day, Moss says. From snacking to portion size, these companies have identified the perfect, albeit unhealthy, combination to handcuff us to their packages and have tossed away the key. Moss discusses that taking the tact to never eat processed food again, however, is unrealistic, even for him. Processed food is here to stay and is most likely a fact of life.


“Food companies aren’t teaching us to like sugar more, they are teaching us what food should taste like,” Moss says in our interview. He argues that they are changing the landscape of food. Spaghetti sauce, for instance, can contain the equivalent of two cookies’ worth of sugar in it. Per serving! For a savory food that never actually called for a lot of sugar, that’s appalling. What’s more, Moss says, they’re teaching our kids what foods should taste like. Everything should be sweet.


How can we navigate these evil forces? Moss may give these food companies the benefit of the doubt, arguing that they’re just doing what any business would do: trying to maximize their sales, but I can’t find it in my heart to do so. Nearly half of us are overweight and suffer health problems because of it. Instead of making foods healthier, companies dial it back by 30 calories and maybe a bite in portion size, but it still has the same effect. We want more. We need more.


It’s Not Me, it’s You.


If exposing their process isn’t enough, Moss worked his way into the company of several Kraft executives who shared their eating habits with him. One thing not on their menu? Their own products. They can’t stop eating these foods either! One gentleman remembered times when he could smoke a single cigarette in a meeting, return home and think nothing of it, but claimed he could never do that with Oreos. Bingo. Maybe these foods really are more addictive than cigs.


Big Food has tapped into our bodies’ internal physical and mental conversations. They are in tune with our innermost thoughts: our memories, hopes and dreams, our wants and our cravings. Through various studies, they have watched our eyes flicker through the supermarket aisles as we make decisions. It very often takes less than 21 seconds to choose what to put into our cart. They have dissected those decisions. They have analyzed them and now cater to us with their products’ taste, design, packaging and placement. They don’t just give us what they think we want, they present us with what they know we will want. If we think we decide what to eat and whether to come back for more, we couldn’t be more mistaken. It’s all a façade. It’s not our choice and because of these factors, it’s also not our fault. Big Food has discovered the key that unlocks our brain’s command center. Their products are designed to switch on the ‘go’ part of our brain and to bypass the part that tells us when to stop. Though shocking, this may hand us a type of freedom we didn’t realize we possessed. We’re onto you, Big Food.


We are drawn to calories. They were, once upon a time, seen as a good thing. The higher the calories in the food we ate, the more body fat we could store, setting us up for longevity. Moss cites a demonstration done using maltodextrin, a substance derived from starch that has no taste, but carries the same caloric load as sugar. People were given plain water and water laced with maltodextrin. They tasted the exact same, yet in all cases, participants chose the maltodextrin water. We need calories to live, and are innately programmed to choose them. When presented with them in processed foods, we choose them. And we have the body fat to prove it.


Body Fat Barnacle.


One reason we can’t get out of this vicious cycle is not only because of our instincts, but because of our body fat. Moss likens it to a diabolical organ in itself with a mind of its own. Body fat serves a purpose – we don’t have to stop what we’re doing or thinking about to go forage for food. It’s money in the bank, he describes. If that’s the case, some of us are very rich.


Body fat’s sole mission is to get us to leave it alone and the more we have, like amassing troops, the more it seems to fortify its position. As Moss discusses, if the fat determines that we’re even approaching a famine or period of weight loss, fat tells the body to burn less and refuses to budge. According to Dr. Erin Kershaw, Moss writes, “Fat raises an objection to anything that remotely smacks of famine.”


What To Do?


They are making food more and more addictive. As we blame ourselves and suffer from poor health, where does it stop? Until government subsidies shift to healthier foods like fruits and veggies, we will get fatter and fatter. Subsidies make corn, wheat and soy, the main ingredients of any processed food, dirt cheap. Those ‘savings’ are passed onto us – the consumer – but the real cost is our health and, as Michael Moss knows, this is life or death.



Michael Moss’s 90-Second Spaghetti Sauce


Ingredients


1 can whole tomatoes (he likes Red Pack whole peeled tomatoes)

Extra virgin olive oil

1 onion, sliced in half

1 clove garlic

1-2 pinches salt

1 pinch sugar

Basil – dried or fresh, whatever you have


Method

(As conveyed by Mr. Moss)


Heat a pan, pour some olive oil in to generously cover the bottom.

Toss in a clove of garlic for 30 seconds and then remove it (Venetian style, to not actually eat the garlic).

Add a can of tomatoes and smash them with a potato smasher (or you can mush them first in a bowl with your hands, which is very fun).

Add a pinch or two of salt and sugar (cause my mom always did, and well as we know those two ingredients are very magical).

Add some dried basil unless you have fresh, and then simmer for however long you want.




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