Open Book

The Taste Bud Conspiracy

Are we the victims of the food industry?

Magazine Issue
July/August 2013
Open Book, July/August 2013

Bet you can’t read just one page of Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, the unapologetically unsugarcoated exposé of the processed food industry’s tricks to spur addiction. Although you may not immediately recognize the name of author Michael Moss, you’re probably familiar with his investigative report on pink slime, the controversial ammonia-treated beef trimmings that meat producers are legally allowed to add as cheap filler to lean ground beef. Moss won the Pulitzer Prize for his New York Times series on beef contamination and safety, and his scoop on pink slime started a chain reaction of public concern and outrage that led to a reduction or discontinuation of its use by several companies.

But that story is only part of the larger one that Moss has to tell us about the corporate competition for our taste buds and our resulting ever-expanding tummies. His narrative in Salt Sugar Fat is as gripping as it is unappetizing, describing how the food industry has meticulously researched and orchestrated our cravings for food. In essence, the more sugar, salt, and fat you eat, the more the hedonist part of your brain insists you want. This cycle has contributed to our current, and concurrent, epidemics of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, yet there’s a potential health benefit to discovering these grisly truths about how our taste buds—and our brains’ reward centers—have been systematically studied and manipulated. Put Moss’s volume in your shopping cart, and the next time you travel down the snack-food aisle, those seemingly innocent bags of “light” potato chips will look downright insidious.

Moss opens his chronicle in 1999, at a top-secret meeting of the CEOs of some of the food industry’s largest companies: Nestlé, Kraft, Nabisco, General Mills, Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola, and Mars. Pillsbury executive James Behnke had convened the summit as nothing less than a public health intervention, an attempt to persuade the industry to look at—and moderate—its role in the growing obesity epidemic. After all, the industry’s formula for corporate success involved aggressive marketing of high-calorie, processed convenience foods and sugary beverages whose recipes had been fine-tuned to hook customers on overconsuming.

To be sure, self-interest drove the proposal put forth at this meeting for an industrywide code to tone down advertising, especially to children, and lead a campaign to promote exercise. By playing the “good guys,” these companies could deflect growing public criticism of the sugary cereals marketed to children and head off the possibility of government regulation by regulating themselves. But within minutes of the start of the meeting, it became clear that among its participants, the competitive desire for ever-greater revenue trumped worries over the health dangers of ever-larger waistlines. In the end, the intervention fell flatter than a day-old open can of soda, and the companies returned to business as usual.

That business, Moss shows, relies on three chief ingredients, and they’re as tasty to the palate as they’re pleasingly cheap to the corporate bottom line: salt, sugar, and fat. When served separately and in moderation, none of them is harmful. The difficulty, for health-conscious consumers, arises from the industry practice of heaping on copious amounts in felicitous combinations designed to reach what’s known in the business as the bliss point. According to a food psychologist quoted by Moss, the bliss point is the “optimum concentration at which the sensory pleasure is maximal. . . . [It] dictates that we eat and drink more than we realize.”

To demonstrate how the bliss point can be calculated and computed, Moss takes us inside a taste-testing room at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. There, a charming 6-year-old girl is presented with serving after serving of vanilla puddings, each with a different level of sweetness, and asked to choose which she prefers. Of the two-dozen puddings she tasted, the most mouthwatering to her contained 24 percent sugar. However, other child tasters chose puddings with as much as 36 percent sugar.

That children desire intense sweetness isn’t surprising. “Our bodies are hard-wired for sweets,” Moss tells us early on, adding later that “sugar has few peers in its ability to create cravings.” What’s particularly troubling is the ways in which the food giants have used such taste tests to rationalize adding more and more sugar to kid-oriented foods. They’re merely giving the kids what they want, they argue, and if they don’t provide the desired sugar rush in their products, their rivals will. Additionally, by acclimating children at an early age to expect sugar in every food, the food giants are training them for a lifetime of extra calories, extra pounds, and extra health risks, especially diabetes, which can lead to heart disease and stroke, as well as a likelihood of infection and damage to the kidneys, nerves, and eyes.

Fat is another key contributor to the bliss point, and perhaps the most disturbing one because of its power to enhance taste, provide a creamy “mouth feel,” and hide any lurking off-flavors—all without our brains or tummies signaling that it’s time to stop eating. This under-the-radar quality helps explain the genesis of that immortal Alka-Seltzer antacid ad: “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing!” Now you know why—and how easily—it can happen.

If you’re not yet outraged enough at the degree to which the food companies exploit our fondness for fat, consider how the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) colludes with them by consistently helping to market and boost the consumption of cheese and red meat. This seeming conflict of interest stems from the USDA’s dual mandate: to protect the nutritional well-being of the public and to promote the agriculture business. Moss’s indictment is searing: “With the American people facing an epidemic of obesity and hardened arteries, the ‘People’s Department’ doesn’t regulate fat as much as it grants the industry’s every wish.” Indeed, since 1985, the USDA has worked with the beef industry to raise approximately $2 billion to encourage more beef and dairy consumption. By contrast, its nutrition center, charged with overseeing nutritional health, operates on a yearly budget of $6.5 million. Guess whose interests win.

Salt’s addictiveness also comes under Moss’s scrutiny. In 2008, researchers at the University of Iowa compared salt to “sex, voluntary exercise, fats, carbohydrates and chocolate, in its possessing addictive qualities.” Although experts warn that by calling cravings for salt, sugar, and fat addictions, we risk trivializing serious biological addictions, parallels do exist. After all, isn’t eating a particular food to avoid or stop the discomfort caused by a craving for it an addictive behavior in itself? And doesn’t the food industry create these cravings in kids, much as the tobacco industry used to, by introducing them to sugary, fatty, and salty foods at an early age, when they’re most vulnerable?

Ironically, most of the food company executives Moss interviewed are careful about their diets, often shunning the very products (including Cheez Whiz and Lunchables) they helped invent and market. The most interesting interview is with former Coca-Cola executive Jeffrey Dunn, who experienced a dramatic turnaround while visiting an impoverished neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro while on a business trip to scope out new markets. Dunn told Moss, “A voice in my head says, ‘These people need a lot of things, but they don’t need a Coke.’ I almost threw up.” These days, Dunn markets a different product: fresh carrots. “We act like a snack, not a vegetable,” he tells his customers, whose numbers are increasing. “We exploit the rules of junk food to fuel the baby carrot conversation. We’re pro-junk food behavior but anti-junk food establishment.”

That’s good news, but the book’s opening scene haunts the rest of the text, reminding us that doing nothing has consequences. In the years since that unsuccessful intervention took place in 1999, Moss reports that, from time to time, individual food companies (most recently Coca-Cola) have promised to limit their advertising reach or lower sugar levels. But these intermittent attempts to adjust the weight scales have generally amounted to little more than corporate public-relations campaigns, ending as soon as rival companies begin encroaching on their customers—or what the business ominously calls their “stomach share.”

Moss’s book is essential reading, but it does have a few faults. First, a clearer timeline would be helpful for readers as he jumps back and forth between his profiles of different companies and executives. Second, and most important, I found it frustrating that after detailing just how difficult the food manufacturers make it to “just say no” to the tasty allure, high convenience, affordable price, and nonstop marketing of processed food, he offers little in the way of advice to help us resist. The advice he does offer is to “think of the grocery as a battlefield, dotted with landmines itching to go off,” and to read food labels. But he explains that the processed-food industry lobbies hard to keep these labels as nonspecific as possible. However, neither of these omissions lessens the power of Moss’s main point, which he’s succeeded admirably in making: we need to wake up to the facts and look before we buy—and before we bite.

Diane Cole

Diane Cole is the author of the memoir After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges and writes for The Wall Street Journal and many other publications.