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Author: Hooking consumers on processed food is a science

| Friday, Sept. 20, 2013, 8:57 p.m.
'Salt Sugar Fat' by Michael Moss
'Salt Sugar Fat' by Michael Moss
New York Times reporter Michael Moss.
Tony Cenicola/The New York Times
New York Times reporter Michael Moss.

The nature of eating habits in the United States can be discerned from Super Bowl parties. When the big game ends, the chips and pretzels, wings and nachos, cheese and crackers are all gone.

The leftovers, according to Michael Moss, the author of “Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us,” ($28, Random House) are usually the healthiest foods.

“What's the last thing that's left on the table usually untouched and uneaten? Usually, it's those spears of broccoli,” Moss says. “And if the baby carrots get eaten, they're usually dipped in French onion dip.”

Little wonder, then, that makers of processed foods attempt to exploit the public's desire for foods with salt, sugar and fat. Moss, who appears on Sept. 23 at Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland as a guest of Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures, examines in his book how the giant food makers have made it increasingly difficult for consumers to resist heavily salted potato chips, sugary colas and cheeses pumped up with fat. Advertising, increasingly fast-paced lifestyles, and even placement of foods in grocery stores contribute to the desire for unhealthy foods that has resulted in one-third of Americans being obese and another third overweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But are citizens culpable by buying and consuming these foods?

“I think it's really hard for people to resist,” says Moss, who won a Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting in 2010 as a staff writer at the New York Times. “When you walk into the front door of the supermarket, both the grocer and the food manufacturer are doing everything they can to get you to make a spontaneous decision. You're walking into this la-la land where they are telling you what's the normal thing to do, what's the best thing for you, and it's very difficult to remember who you are and where you're coming from and what your dietary goals and needs may be. And that's even before you get to the formulations. ... It's astounding that they have scientists on staff, or as consultants, whose job it is to find the perfect amounts of salt, sugar and fat.”

From those perfect amounts, the scientists attempt to attain an ideal mix of substance and taste. In the soft-drink industry, this is known as the “bliss point,” the highest amount of sugar that's palatable to human taste.

Moss gained access to confidential documents that were the blueprints of the processed-foods industry's agenda. Confronted with this evidence, many food scientists and CEOs agreed to talk to Moss. A minority were chagrined at the role they played in pumping up foods with salt, sugar and fat. Others blamed the competitive nature of the industry and the need to maintain or increase profit margins. Some were unapologetic.

But everyone Moss interviewed had one thing in common: They rarely, if ever, consumed processed foods loaded with salt, sugar and fat.

“I really was surprised by how they don't even eat their own products, especially when they run into health trouble,” he says. “They realize how potent they are. ... I think that's really telling. For me, the big thing about the book is we've always known that eating too much of these foods ... will make us overweight. But now we know the industry has been acutely aware of this for years and years, even as they continued to add heaps and heaps of salt, sugar and fat. That, to me, is a strong indictment.”

Rege Behe is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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