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Posted on February 28, 2014 | 8:35 a.m.

Author Michael Moss Offers Taste of ‘Salt, Sugar, Fat’ in Talk at UCSB

Source: Robert Bernstein, Noozhawk Contributor

Salt, Sugar, Fat is the name of a new book by Michael Moss and the title of his talk at a packed UCSB Campbell Hall last weekend.

Moss is a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter, but this investigative project on the processed food industry was funded by Random House publishers.

Addiction is the obvious conclusion of his research. The processed food industry wants you to find their food truly irresistible. And "addiction" is the one word they carefully avoid using. Instead, they use words like "cravability", "snackability" and "more-ishness."

Howard Moskowitz pioneered the idea of a "bliss point" for salt, sugar and fat in spaghetti sauce, and the concept has been expanded to many processed foods.

One key is to add sweetness to foods that never had it before, such as bread, low-fat yogurts, etc. And we come to expect sweetness in everything we eat, which makes it that much harder to get kids to eat Brussels sprouts and broccoli.

Moss talked to people in the industry who had misgivings. Jeffrey Dunn of Coca-Cola was one. He said Coke refers to its best customers as "heavy users" who consume two or more cans a day.

The industry does "savage marketing" to kids to get them hooked and brand loyal. One key is store arrangements so kids will spend their allowances on what is most visible to them.

Dr. Nora Volcow at the National Institute on Drug Abuse looked at the brain response to food. She saw the response to high sugar and fat foods and patterns of compulsive uptake. Some similarity to tobacco, alcohol and narcotics. But one important difference: Food is everywhere, and you can't go cold turkey on food.

People find it nearly impossible to eat just one or two Oreo cookies or potato chips.

Moss looked at his own cravability of potato chips. He showed an image of chips emphasizing a "flavor burst" coating on the outside. It gives an "eating more" signal that is separate from one of the five basic tastes. Potato chip starch is converted to sugar when it hits your tongue. Potatoes and chips are the single most responsible food for weight gain, he noted.

Even increasing the crunchy sound of chips correlates with eating more.

Psychobiology is applied by the industry. One concept is "dynamic contrast." He gives the example of Doritos Locos Tacos: "a crispy shell and a fat-laced filling." Half the calories are from fat. There is a special mouth feel. Lactic and citric acids get saliva flowing.

And here is one key: The taste is "forgettable," meaning people are drawn back to re-experience the taste over and over.

The parallels with Big Tobacco are not just by analogy. Tobacco giant Philip Morris became a major processed food manufacturer starting in the 1980s when it acquired Kraft and General Foods.

In the late '90s, Philip Morris actually decided to embrace government intervention for self-preservation! It saw huge lawsuits coming and realized regulation was a way to avoid corporate responsibility. It warned that salt, sugar and fat in the food industry would be bigger than tobacco liability.

In 1999, the heads of the largest food companies met at Pillsbury. They looked at a map showing the "march of obesity" in the United States over time.

The reaction was the opposite of what was intended. The companies said they already offer whole grains and low-sugar versions of their foods. But customers don't buy them. "We are obligated to consumers and shareholders."

Moss went on to tell the story of cheese. Low-fat milk became popular in the 1960s for health reasons. Where did the fat go? Cheese. More than anyone can eat.

The dairy industry marketed cheese and got the government to buy what was left over. It was never enough. Huge caves were used to store cheese until the government finally refused to buy and store any more of it.

The industry replaced saturated fat in food with sugar. This turned out to be a bad swap for public health. Fat is actually satiating. Sugar is not.

Moss noted that the top people in the industry avoid their own food.

Moss wanted to know why the industry doesn't at least cut back on salt. Kellogg's invited him to come find out. They gave him samples of Corn Flakes with low salt. It tasted like metal.

Salt can mask a variety of "off flavors" of processed food, including what the industry calls "Warmed Over Flavor (WOF)" of meat in soup. Like wet dog hair. Salt masks it.

Salt is a miracle. At 10 cents a pound, it avoids the need for fresh herbs and spices. It is a preservative, and it masks foul tastes.

Solutions are what people seek. He says he is a journalist, not an activist. He is grateful to activists. There are school lunch activists here in Santa Barbara, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg fought to limit soda sizes in New York City.

But the playing field is not level. The soda companies spend tens of millions of dollars a year to brand kids. Their CEOs met in 1999, and all they could recommend was that kids get more exercise.

Many places are not so safe as Chase Palm Park here (he showed a photo of kids running there that morning), and you have to run a lot to burn the calories of just one soda.

He showed what he does with his family. He takes his kids to the store at home in Brooklyn. He tells them they can choose any cereal, but it has to be limited to 5 to 6 grams of sugar per serving. They engage in the hunt. They literally have to look high and low because the most sugary cereals are at eye level.

But when they bring it home and eat it, they enjoy it more. They engaged in conversation and in the hunt and were not preached to.

At Virginia Commonwealth University last summer, the students had to read his book before school even started. It is not preaching. It is about multinational corporations trying to get us to do their bidding.

He affirms what Michael Pollan tells us: Eat real, whole foods. Foods your grandmother would recognize as foods. We should be doubling our vegetable and whole fruit consumption.

Smart researchers at Harvard found that snacking on a few nuts at a time will make you feel full and tide you over when you are hungry.

Put a mirror in your shopping cart as a reminder of your body shape while you shop. It is effective. Put tape across the middle of the cart and put fruits and vegetables in half. People double their purchase that way.

Moss went to a top ad agency and asked them to make an ad for wholesome food. They said one strategy is the fake food fight — like Coke vs. Pepsi, except make it broccoli vs. kale! Both "competitors" end up with increased sales.

In the end, his main recommendation, beyond personal awareness, is government regulation. Treat addictive processed food the same as addictive tobacco products.

Also briefly mentioned and central to all such discussions: Our corporate laws obligate corporations to maximize profits for shareholders. As long as that is the case, corporations will be looking after the health of their profits, not our health.

And with no business model for sustained investigative reporting, reports like this are becoming ever more rare. We need some kind of public financing of such investigative reporting of the kind BBC and CBC have had for decades.

And, of course, as long as elected officials are forced to please their corporate sponsors, little of substance will change. Public financing of elections would go a long way to solving those problems as well.

Moss may not be an activist, but we better start being activists, or suffer the consequences of inaction!

The book Salt, Sugar, Fat was a New York Times No. 1 bestseller. The event was sponsored by UCSB Arts & Lectures, the Orfalea Foundation and Lynda.com.

Robert Bernstein is a local photographer and frequent Noozhawk contributor. The opinions expressed are his own.

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