Author Q&A About Salt Sugar Fat

So, how big is the processed food industry, exactly?

What kind of scale are we talking about here? The scale we’re talking about here is huge. Grocery sales now top $1 trillion a year in the U.S., with more than 300 manufacturers employing 1.4 million workers, or 12 percent of all American manufacturing jobs. Global sales exceed $3 trillion. But the figure I find most revealing is 60,000: That’s the number of different products found on the shelves of the largest supermarkets.

How did it get so big?

The food processing industry is more than a century old — if you count the invention of breakfast cereals — but it really took off in the 1950s with the promotion of convenience foods whose design and marketing was aimed at the increasing numbers of families with both parents working outside the home. The industry’s growth, since then, has been entirely unrestrained. While food safety is heavily regulated, the government has been industry’s best friend and partner in encouraging Americans to become more dependent on processed foods.

What 3 things should a health-conscious supermarket shopper keep in mind?

The most alluring products — those with the highest amounts of salt, sugar and fat — are strategically placed at eye-level on the grocery shelf. So you typically have to stoop down to find, say, plain oatmeal. Healthier products are generally up high or down low. Companies are also adept at playing the better-nutrition card by plastering their packaging with terms like “all natural,” “contains whole grains,” “contains real fruit juice,” and “lean,” which belie the true contents of the products. Reading labels is no easy chore for shoppers. Only since the 1990s have the manufacturers even been required to reveal the true salt, sugar, fat and caloric loads of their products, which are itemized in a box called the “nutrient facts.” But one game that many companies still play is to divide these numbers in half, or even thirds, by reporting this critical information per serving – which are typically tiny portions. In particular, they do this for cookies and chips, knowing that most people can’t resist eating the entire three-serving bag. Check it out sometime. See how many “servings” that little bag of chips contains.

The nutrition label on the back of my box of cereal – or cookies, or crackers, or what have you – is incredibly confusing and hard to understand. What should I be looking for? How do I read a label?

Avoid falling into the trap of underestimating how much you eat: Three-quarters of a cup of sugary cereal — which is what the FDA calls a serving — is just the start of what my kids will pour into their bowls. Know that there are huge differences among seemingly similar brands: In my house, we recently discovered a yogurt with half as much sugar, and my 8-year-old likes it just as much. Pay particular attention to the limits called “daily values”: these are percentage calculations from the FDA, and do not reflect the newer, and lower, maximum levels set by the USDA in its nutrition guidelines.

Why does soup have so much salt in it?

My wife asked me this same question just the other day when she bought a can of chicken noodle soup from a natural, organic foods manufacturer, and didn’t bother reading the label until our youngest son said it was so salty he couldn’t eat it. And no wonder: the can had nearly a whole day’s worth of the sodium recommended for adults. There are three reasons that soup — not mention so many other products — are so salty: Salt costs the food companies a mere ten cents a pound, which is far cheaper than trying to provide flavor the way my mom did: by using fresh herbs and spices. Salt also masks bitterness and other bad flavors, including a pernicious one called WOF, or warmed-over-flavor, which meat gets when it is processed and reheated; and salt gives processed food its long life on the grocery shelf, which is critical to the industry’s financial success.

How much salt, sugar and fat does the average American eat in a given year, and how much of that comes from processed food?

Way too much, even the U.S. Department of Agriculture concedes. Salt is at 8,500 milligrams a day, which delivers more than twice the maximum levels of sodium recommended for the majority of American adults. Sugar — just the amount added to foods and drinks during processing, and not including the sugar already there naturally — is at 22 teaspoons a day, which is as much as four times the amount people should get, depending on their age and caloric needs. And saturated fat — the kind of fat doctors worry about because it is linked to heart disease and other health problems — is at 11 percent of the average adult’s food intake, while the recommended max is 7 percent. In all, three-quarters of this salt, sugar and fat in our diets comes from processed foods.

How did you land on salt, sugar, and fat as your way to write about the industry?

Why these three ingredients. I had been investigating a surge in deadly outbreaks of E. coli in meat when an industry source, a microbiologist, suggested that if I wanted to see an even bigger public health hazard, I should look at what food companies were intentionally adding to their products, starting with salt. And sure enough, when I looked at this — by gaining access to high level industry officials and a trove of sensitive, internal records — a window opened wide on how aggressive the industry was wielding not only salt, but sugar and fat, too. These are the pillars of processed foods, the three ingredients without which there would be no processed foods. Salt, sugar and fat drive consumption by adding flavor and allure. But surprisingly, they also mask bitter flavors that develop in the manufacturing process. They enable these foods to sit in warehouses or on the grocery shelf for months on end. And, most critically to the industry’s financial success, they are very inexpensive.

How did you get executives of all these companies to talk to you?

I’ve been a reporter for more than 30 years, mostly doing investigations, which requires digging below the surface of things that institutions and their officials try to shield from public view. But really, all this takes is curiosity and a willingness to listen. Most of the people I interviewed were passionate about their work, and I got the sense they were waiting for someone to come along who would consider the more difficult aspects of their jobs with fairness. Some have become fierce critics of processed foods, and avoid eating their own products. Others point out that the country was far less reliant on convenience foods when they began inventing and marketing things like microwavable popcorn or cheese-and-meat stuffed calzones, and that they started to worry about the effects of their products when we became a snacking society that condoned eating anything, anywhere, anytime.

The word “addictive” is often used to describe certain kinds of processed foods – particularly the ones high in salt, sugar, and fat. Is this fair? Do people become physically addicted to, say, sugar?

I feel for the industry, which desperately wants to avoid getting saddled with the word. Companies rightly point out that much of the science is based on laboratory animals, not people, and even the most compelling evidence — neurological studies showing that sugar and fat lights up the brain in the same way that cocaine does is — is a work in progress. But I defer to the head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Nora Volkow (appointed by President George W. Bush, I might add), who has strong feelings about processed foods, having studied food dependencies, too. While drugs can set off brain responses that are far more powerful, she told me, “clearly, processed sugar in certain individuals produce these compulsive patterns of intake.”

How does the industry talk about addiction? Surely they don’t use the word addiction. Do they have other ways of talking about it?

They do. The words they use to describe the addictive powers of their products are crave, craveability and alluring. They have also embraced studies that seek to shift the blame for food dependencies onto the consumer, saying it’s their behavior — like bingeing and other irregular eating patterns — that creates the addiction, and not the loads of salt, sugar and fat. But no matter the semantics: it’s important to remember that inside the companies, every ounce of their energy is spent making their food and beverages as attractive to consumers as possible. As one Kraft official told me, “We would talk about people `desiring’ foods, and at the end of the day, you make the best-tasting food you possibly can.”

What kind of R&D goes into launching a new product these days? Say a major food company wants to roll out a new kind of cookie to appeal to kids. What happens before that product comes to market?

Keeping up a steady stream of new products to put on the grocery store is critical to a food company’s success: they call this “product news,” and this is what generates increased sales. Most of this churn involves making only slight changes to the formula or packaging. Indeed, the industry’s old timers complain that very little real inventing goes on today. But all of these thousands of new products turned out each year go through a basic drill: The chemists will engineer the formula to hit the perfect “bliss point,” or the amount of salt, sugar and fat that consumers find the most attractive, and they will run taste panels to test these on real consumers; the marketing folks will roll it out slowly, testing the product in a few cities so they won’t be out too much money if they got the formula wrong; and the advertising side, meanwhile, will be honing the perfect pitch, building on the psychological pull of the existing brand. The largest companies also have sophisticated research centers, where they use brain scans and other tools to perfect their basic understanding of just what it is about their products that we find so addictive — or rather, I mean, alluring.

Part of what’s interesting here is the way the major food companies speak out of both sides of their mouths. Nestle, for instance, has 350 scientists on staff and, in recent years, has dedicated a substantial amount of its resources to creating healthier versions of its products. Yet, in 2002, they paid $2.6 billion to acquire Hot Pockets, which you say are “arguably one of the unhealthiest items in the grocery store.” How do they square all this?

I recently picked up aHot Pocket at my local grocery store, and looked at the label. It contained close to my daily limit for salt and saturated fat, along with nearly six teaspoons of sugar to boot. Nestle, among other companies, sees itself as fulfilling a need, rather than causing or perpetuating health problems like obesity. In this case, Nestle said it spotted the millennial generation, young men especially, gravitating toward casual, convenient meals, and viewed the Hot Pockets as a way to meet their needs.

You talk a lot about the way the food giants are altering the physical structure of these substances – more intense sugar, finer salt crystals, larger fat globules that create a more luxurious feel on the tongue. The word you use to describe this is “weaponization.” Can you give us an example of how this works?

Some of these efforts are aimed at providing more bang for the buck. For its food company customers, Cargill has created 40 types of processed salt, from fine powders to huge pyramid-shaped crystals, altering the physical shape to work best with the targeted product, from meat to soups to pretzels. My personal favorite is the pyramid, which is hollowed out to enable your saliva to your my tastebuds with the quickest burst of salty flavor. In sugars, one of the industry’s manipulations is aimed at dodging consumer concerns about nutrition: pear and grape juice is “stripped” of its fiber and other fruit elements to create molecules of nearly pure sugar that can be listed on labels more benignly as “fruit juice concentrate.” But some of these efforts are also aimed at improving the health of consumers. Nestle right now is trying to create an “encapsulated oil,” in which a healthier unsaturated fat is encased by sugar or protein molecules in order to provide the same great taste sensation — called “mouthfeel” — of saturated fat.

The industry has become incredibly powerful and the government has proven largely ineffective in terms of regulation. How, then, will anything ever change?

What has to happen in order for the food companies to commit to healthier foods? On this matter, I have to defer to consumer advocates. There is a growing consensus that the government must intervene with regulation if there is to be any meaningful change. But I was rather stunned when the former CEO of Philip Morris (which owned several of the biggest food companies) told me that he is inclined to embrace the concept of regulation for food, given how the industry has failed to put meaningful curbs on itself, and how even a company wanting to do the right thing by consumers would get devoured by the fierce industry competition.

Why are food companies allowed to advertise to children? Why is it okay for my eight year old’s cartoon shows to be interrupted every five minutes by ads for new sugar cereals – some of which are filled with chocolate – that purport to be “part of a nutritious breakfast”? What are the rules here?

I hear your frustration. The “rule” has been self-regulation, ever since the Federal Trade Commission tried, and failed, in the 1970s to put some government curbs on the advertising of sugary foods to kids. Under pressure from consumer advocates, 16 companies are now part of a 2006 initiative by the Better Business Bureau, having pledged to stop advertising many of their products to kids, and to improve the nutrition of those they do advertise. But a 2011 audit of this effort by the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale turned up mixed results: the number of cereal and soda ads are down, but so are ads for fruits and vegetables, while the advertising for candy and snacks is up. There also appears to be a significant shift toward using social media, rather than TV, to advertise the junkiest foods.

You have a chapter devoted to Kraft’s premade meal for kids, The Lunchables, which suggests that you see this as emblematic of something bigger in the industry’s approach to children. Can you explain what that is?

The Lunchables is important because it brought fast-food into the grocery store, creating a new category of ready-to-eat snacks and meals to kids. Beyond their hefty loads of salt, sugar and fat — which, I want to stress, Kraft is now working to reduce — these little trays also engaged kids at an early age in the industry’s psychological gamesmanship known as “permission.” This is the strategy by which the processed food industry gets consumers to trade things like flavor and freshness for convenience and lower cost. Lunchables got kids to accept cold raw pizza — and cold burgers and cold hot dogs — in exchange for the feeling of empowerment they got from assembling and having these store-bought trays at school. Thus the brand’s slogan: “All day you gotta do what they say. But lunchtime is all yours.”

What’s the most surprising thing you learned in the course of reporting this book?

It was hardly surprising that Philip Morris would push for higher sales after purchasing General Foods and Kraft in the 1980s, which I found by mining a trove – literally, millions of pages — of secret internal company records. Philip Morris was masterful at marketing cigarettes, and it supplied its new food managers with targeted mailing lists and other clever marketing tools. But what did surprise me was the about-face that Philip Morris did in the early 2000s, when it began warning its food managers that they were facing a problem as big, if not bigger, than the trouble that nicotine was causing for the tobacco industry. The story of how this played out, as a cabal at Kraft set out to do the right thing by consumer health, is, for me, one of the richest parts of the book. Newsletter Signup Sign up to get updates on nutrition and the food industry