If you're someone who has turned to snacking on junk food more in the pandemic, you're not alone. Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Michael Moss says processed food is engineered to be "craveable," not unlike a cigarette or a hit of cocaine.
His 2013 book, Salt Sugar Fat, explored food companies' aggressive marketing of those products and their impact on our health. In his new book, Hooked, Moss updates the food giants' efforts to keep us eating what they serve — and how they're responding to complaints from consumers and health advocates.
Processed food, he notes, is "inexpensive, it's legal, it's everywhere. And the advertising from the companies is cueing us to remember those products and we want those products constantly. So the food environment ... is one of those key things that makes food even more problematic for so many people."
Moss notes that memory — and nostalgia in particular — play a big role in the foods we crave.
"The soda companies discovered that if they put a soda in the hands of a child when they're at a ballpark with their parents, that soda will forever be associated with that joyous moment," he says. "So later on in life, when that child now wants to experience a joyous moment, they're going to think of soda."
During the pandemic, he says, many people have sought comfort in the snacks they remember from childhood. "We went into the store, and we started buying products we hadn't had since we were kids," he says — recalling "great joyous moments."
Moss examines the way these companies capitalize on our memories, cravings and brain chemistry to keep us snacking.
On how the processed food industry appeals to our sense of nostalgia
One of the reasons I came to think that some of these food products are even more powerful, more troublesome than drugs can be is memory. What we eat is all about memory. And we begin forming memories for food at a really early age, possibly even in the womb, depending on what our mother is eating. And we keep those memories for a lifetime. They don't go away. ... And the more we eat these products, the deeper those memory channels go. And so the food industry, knowing that, spends lots of time trying to shape the memories that we have for their products.
On how processed food is designed to make your brain react fast
One of the hallmarks of addiction that scientists who are studying drug addiction discovered back in the 1990s was that the faster a substance hits the brain, the more apt we are as a result to act compulsively, impulsively. So they sort of speak about tobacco and alcohol and drug products in terms of the speed that they hit the brain. But it turns out that there's nothing faster than food in ... its ability to sort of hit the brain. ...
For me, this puts kind of the notion of "fast food" in an entirely new light. In fact, I like to call what we're talking about here "fast groceries" — that 90% of the middle part of the grocery store. We refine these things, because everything about the processed food industry is about speed, from the manufacturing to the packaging — making it easy for us to open up those packages and get at the food — to the actual speed of their products exciting our brains.
On the language these food companies use internally
Not just at Kraft, but at other companies, they use other language that's kind of startling when they talk about maximizing the allure of their products. They talk about engineering "snackability" and "craveability," and one of my favorite words, hearing from them is "more-ishness," as in, the person eating [and] wanting more and more of it. These aren't English majors; these are bench chemists and psychologists and marketing executives sort of talking about their efforts to maximize that.
On why we are naturally drawn to high-calorie foods
We by nature are drawn to food that has calories, because for much of our previous existence, getting calories was a life or death thing. It enabled us to put on some body fat, which enabled our brains to grow and us to get through hard times and have more babies.
On if the food industry is knowingly trying to get us addicted
I've been crawling through this industry for 10 years now, and I still resist the idea of looking at them as this evil empire that intentionally set out to make us obese or otherwise ill on their products. These are companies doing what all companies want to do — make as much money [as they can]. But I think ... the problem lies in, kind of, their own dependence on making their products inexpensive and super yummy and incredibly convenient for us. And now that more and more people are caring about what they're put in their bodies and are wanting to eat healthier, these companies are finding it really difficult to meet that new demand because of their own addiction, if you will, to making these convenience foods. ...
In much of the industry, there really isn't a smoking gun. They wear their marketing schemes and their psychology and the things they go after, kind of, on the sleeves. You can see it on the packages, except for the way that they go after sort of our basic biology — that you can't see on their products. And I think that that's what made Hooked so interesting for me, was looking at the things that they're doing that aren't on the product label that cause us to lose control of our eating habits.
Sam Briger and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Deborah Franklin adapted it for the web.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in today for Terry Gross. Ninety-six million Americans are obese today. And our guest Michael Moss wrote in a 2013 bestseller that giant food companies contributed to the problem with their aggressive marketing of heavily processed foods loaded with salt, sugar and fat. When asked at the time if those products were addictive, like drugs, he didn't have a clear answer. He returns to that question in a new book that updates the food industry's efforts to keep us buying their products in large quantities and explores the food giants' responses to pressure from consumers and health advocates to change their offerings.
Michael Moss is an investigative reporter who formerly worked for The New York Times, where he won a Pulitzer Prize for his investigation into the dangers of contaminated meat. He's also worked at The Wall Street Journal, the Atlanta Constitution and other publications. His new book is "Hooked: Food, Free Will, And How The Food Giants Exploit Our Addictions." He joins us from his home in Brooklyn, N.Y. Michael Moss, welcome back to FRESH AIR. You write in this book about a lawsuit aimed at McDonald's. And the plaintiff was a young woman named Jazlyn Bradley from Brooklyn. Tell us her story. What was her complaint?
MICHAEL MOSS: Jazlyn got ensnared by fast food at a really early age, 6 years old. Her family lived near an outlet of McDonald's. And she sort of found herself eating more and more of it as she grew up, both because it was convenient and yummy, and she was kind of a picky eater, but also kind of for emotional reasons. And she grew and put on, you know, a considerable amount of weight through middle school and high school. When an attorney who had represented her on a lead paint case sort of called her up one day and said, hey, how would - you know, I've got this new lawsuit that I'm considering against the fast-food industry. How would you like to join in as a plaintiff? And - you know, and Jazlyn was really worried. I mean, this was a trillion-dollar industry that she was going up against. And she was scared both from that perspective and from a personal perspective.
But she signed on. And they sued McDonald's for causing her weight gain. And at the end of the day, she got creamed in court. The suit lingered for years and years. But eventually, it sort of went nowhere and ended in a tiny, little settlement. But the case, which drew attention kind of publicly and among scientists who were looking at things like drug addiction and even within the processed food industry, gained some traction. And 20 years later, now, I sort of argue in the book that her case sort of, you know, was incredibly meaningful. And it kind of changed the way all those entities began looking at these altered processed food products.
DAVIES: And this lawsuit raised a question, and that is whether highly processed food - like you get at McDonald's and you get in grocery stores and that was feeding obesity, diabetes and other problems - is addictive, addictive in the same way that heroin, you know, or tobacco is. And for this book, you spend some time exploring the medical and scientific literature on how exactly we define addiction. Is there a clear answer?
MOSS: Yeah. I think there is. And one of the things that changed my mind - because if we'd have had this conversation five years ago and you had suggested to me that Twinkies were as addictive as heroin, I would have thought that was nuts. I mean, I would have said, like, where's the harsh chemical you find in drugs? And where's the - why do these products affect only sort of some people? Not everybody loses control of Oreo cookies. And, like, who commits armed robbery to rob, you know, a convenience store for junk food? But, you know, the more I looked at this and the more I sort of talked to these scientists, the more it became clear to me that the definition of addiction has changed over time. And where it used to have some very kind of particular constraints on it, it's now sort of more freewheeling and more covering other things in the world. Even sort of smartphones and other things are considered to be addictive in this sense.
But the real clincher for me was looking at the tobacco industry because for decades, tobacco denied that smoking was addictive. And then in the year 2000, Philip Morris, for one, completely turned around, acknowledged that smoking was addictive. And that same year, the CEO of the company was asked in some legal proceedings to define addiction. And he goes, addiction is a repetitive behavior that some people find difficult to quit? And I thought that was an absolutely perfect definition, not only for smoking and alcohol and drugs, but for many of the ultra-processed food products that Philip Morris itself was manufacturing for years and years.
DAVIES: Right. And it's worth noting that Philip Morris acquired a bunch of food companies. So you had this remarkable - what? - coincidence that this company that had all this experience with dealing with litigation alleging harmful addiction now owned all these food companies (laughter).
MOSS: And sort of having some insider knowledge, because I later spent time with the former general counsel of Philip Morris. His name is Steve Parrish. And we sat down. And he was kind of talking about his relationship to cigarettes because he started smoking when he went to work for the company. But he said, you know, Michael, I'm one of those people who can take a cigarette out, have a smoke during a business meeting and then put the pack away and have, you know, no compulsion or interest in pulling that cigarette pack out again until the next day. But I couldn't go near a bag of our Oreo cookies - because that was one of the things that Philip Morris manufactured and sold at the time - you know, for fear of losing control and eating half of the bag. And, you know, for me, as a journalist, this is kind of, like, one of those rich moments when you realize that people inside this industry have knowledge. And in this case, they know how powerful their products can be and the way that they're engineered to kind of rob us of our free will and our willpower to say no to their products.
DAVIES: And it sort of also underlines the - you know, the somewhat kind of pliable nature of addiction. It affects different people differently, right?
MOSS: Yeah. No. Absolutely. And so the word some in that definition, right - a repetitive behavior that some people find difficult to quit - is really, really important because addiction happens on a spectrum. And as you pointed out, there are some people who can smoke casually. There are some people, many people, who can drink casually without getting hooked. And don't take me wrong, I'm not suggesting anybody try this. But there are people who use heroin on a casual basis. And I think that's really important to understand because not everybody falls hard for convenience foods. Some of us are able to put our hands into a bag of potato chips. And even though that slogan from Lay's going back to the '60s - bet you can't eat just one - is kind of a perfect kind of example of the industry kind of teasing us and goading us, there are some people who can resist eating half the bag. But many people can't for lots of reasons that are kind of unknown. And again, that sort of - you know, that's this idea of addiction happening on a spectrum. And we're vulnerable in terms of different people, in terms of different parts and times of our lives and even times of the day.
DAVIES: So in this book, you look at the notion of addiction and whether processed food can be said to be addicting. So let's just talk a little bit about how our biology interacts with the processed food that a lot of the food giants sell. Now, I mean, it's known that we've evolved to love food with high sugar and fat content because our ancestors, our prehistoric ancestor, needed, you know, to maximize fuel and food storage in a different era. But in this book, you explore some other aspects of our biology that might compel us to eat this stuff. One of them is the role of memory in the way we choose our food. You want to explore this with us?
MOSS: Yeah. So one of the reasons I came to think that some of these food products are even more powerful, more troublesome than drugs can be is memory. You know, what we eat is all about memory. And we begin forming memories for food at a really early age, possibly even in the womb depending on what our mother is eating. And we keep those memories for a lifetime. They don't go away. And the more we sort of do and the more we eat these products, the deeper the kind of those memory channels go.
And so the food industry, knowing that, spends lots of time trying to shape the memories that we have for their products. And it's why the soda companies discovered that if they put a soda in the hands of a child when they're at a ballpark with their parents, that soda will forever be associated with that joyous moment because that's the thing about food memories - that they often get associated with memories and so on or with other emotions, I should say. And so later on in life, when that child now wants to, you know, experience a joyous moment, they're going to think of soda and associate it with that.
And one of the ways that memory kind of played out just recently - I mean, during the pandemic, we at least thought we were going to get away from the vending machine, one of the most treacherous corners of the processed food industry. But many people turned their kitchen cupboards into vending machines because we went shopping. And under the stress and strain of the pandemic, we went into the store, and we started buying products we hadn't had since we were kids. And the companies were elated because the sales of those products were soaring, and they continue to as we bought those products. And the reason we did is that we remembered them from our childhood and sort of great, joyous moments. And 30, 40 years later, those memories weren't disappeared. We were buying those products and bringing them home.
DAVIES: And it's interesting that it's - the association is not just with soda or a candy bar but with the brands that you had this wonderful experience with. And then the triggers can come back years, decades later. I mean, you know, I remember when I saw the movie "Super Size Me," which is about the guy who eats at McDonald's three meals a day for a month - not a flattering portrayal of McDonald's - one of my reactions was, oh, I haven't had a Big Mac in forever. I want one.
MOSS: Well, I'll tell you, Dave, I had an experience like that, too, because I went to the research and development factory of Kellogg's in Battle Creek, Mich., to talk to them about something else. And as we were walking through, they were experimenting with a new version of Pop Tarts. And the production line had failed, and they were dumping a huge amount into a vat. But that aroma wafting across the factory floor took me instantly back to grammar school. I was a latchkey kid, and one of my joyous moments of the day was coming home, letting myself in and putting a Pop Tart in the toaster oven. So, you know, and I hadn't had a Pop Tart in 30, 40 years since then. But simply the power of the smell and the memory of that was enough to whisk me all the way back to my childhood.
DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Michael Moss. He's a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter. His new book about the food industry is "Hooked: Food, Free Will, And How the Food Giants Exploit Our Addictions." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF RUDY ROYSTON'S "BED BOBBIN'")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Michael Moss. His new book about the food industry is "Hooked: Food, Free Will, And How The Food Giants Exploit Our Addictions."
Another part of our biology that works here is the mechanics of smell. There's a little more to it than we'd realized, right?
MOSS: Yeah. So one of the things that happened when we became - and for this book, I spent time with evolutionary biologists, which was sort of an incredible experience for me because they have this perspective on us. And in fact, one of them kind of pushed back on the addiction thing and said, look, Michael. It's not so much that food is addictive. It's that we by nature are drawn toward food in ways that cause us to love food and even want to overeat. And the problem is that these food companies have changed the nature of our food in the past 50 years to make overeating an everyday thing.
And so one of the ways that we're drawn to food - when we began standing upright, walking upright, it sort of enhanced our powers of smell. And so today we smell not only through the nose but through the mouth. And when we chew or sip drinks, the volatiles get released, and there's kind of like a little chimney in the back of your mouth that takes those smellable molecules up to kind of your nasal cavity. The olfactory bulb sits at the bottom of the brain and gets the brain excited, too, which - when we think of flavor, 80% of flavor is actually smell, not taste, taste being salt, sugar, fat, umami, sour picked up by the taste buds. We can smell from 350 to 380 different things in sort of thousands of combinations.
DAVIES: Right. And so do food companies and their research labs use that in some way to increase the appeal of their foods?
MOSS: Oh, my gosh, do they. So they use these chemical labs called flavor houses, which run up and down New Jersey, actually - the corridor there - working for the food companies because there you have chemists, flavorists who know how to maximize the smell of products to imitate sort of natural smells and flavor. And one of these houses walked me through the process of creating pumpkin pie spice - right? - which became kind of this crazy thing in the supermarket during the fall, after Starbucks started it with coffee. Suddenly, you saw pumpkin spice Pop-Tarts and M&M's and cereals and on and on and on. But one of the really fascinating things about their work is, while they're driving to maximize smell, one of the most valuable things they do for the processed food industry is to reduce the cost of their products.
DAVIES: So that's where smell comes in? You can make them more flavorful, more cheaply, by using smell rather than taste?
MOSS: Yes. And those same chemists who are working on the smell are also reformulating and paying even more attention to making smells at a lower cost for the food products.
DAVIES: You also write about speed, and this somehow is connected to the speed with which sugar on our tongue hits the brain and gets us excited.
MOSS: Yeah, one of the hallmarks of addiction that scientists who were studying drug addiction discovered back in the 1990s was that the faster a substance hits the brain, the more apt we are as a result to act compulsively, impulsively. So they sort of speak about, you know, tobacco and alcohol and drug products in terms of the speed that they hit the brain. But it turns out that there's nothing faster than food in the way - its ability to sort of hit the brain.
And some scientists did this really neat experiment a while ago where they sat people down, and they said, look; we want to test how fast you taste sweetness. We're going to put a little sugar on your tongue, and when you taste it, you push the button. And so sugar goes on the tongue, and it cheats. It doesn't go directly to the brain; it sends a signal, gets picked up by the taste buds, which activate the sweet receptors in the taste buds, which sends a signal to the brain. In their case, their brain was telling that finger to push the button in less than a second. I think it was about six-tenths, seven-tenths of a second, compared to smoking, which can take 10 seconds to fully activate the brain - and alcohol and narcotics are kind of somewhere in between.
But for me, this put kind of the notion of fast food in an entirely new light. In fact, I like to call what we're talking about here fast groceries, that 90% of the middle part of the grocery store where we find these things because everything about the processed food industry is about speed - from the manufacturing to the packaging, making it easy for us to open up those packages and get at the food, to the actual speed of their products exciting our brands.
DAVIES: Wow. So the fact that food will hit our brain more quickly than cocaine or heroin or alcohol or nicotine means we're more likely to reach for it repeatedly?
MOSS: Yeah, I think so. And one of the pushbacks, again, from the industry that I had in starting the research was, but wait a minute; if you look at brain scans of people and one person's on cocaine, another person is on, you know, Hot Pockets, the brain's not going to be lighting up as brightly for the Hot Pockets as the cocaine. But as drug researchers, drug addiction researchers, who now study food addiction pointed out to me, you know, food doesn't have to work that hard on us to get us to act compulsively kind of because of the food environment. It's inexpensive. It's legal. It's everywhere.
And the advertising from the companies is cuing us to remember those products and want those products sort of constantly. So the food environment, along with memory and speed, is sort of one of those key things that makes food even more problematic for so many people, even more so than drugs, alcohol and cigarettes.
DAVIES: We need to take another break here. Let me reintroduce you. We're speaking with Michael Moss. He's a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter. His new book is "Hooked: Food, Free Will, And How The Food Giants Exploit Our Addictions." He'll be back to talk more after we take this short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUGAR")
BILLIE HOLIDAY: (Singing) Sugar, I call my baby my sugar. I never maybe my sugar, that sugar baby of mine. He's special ration. Funny, he never asks for my money. All that I give him is honey, and that he can spend any time. I'd make a million trips to his lips if I were a bee because he's sweeter than chocolate candy to me. He's confectionery sugar. I never cheat on my sugar 'cause I'm too sweet on my sugar, that sugar baby of mine.
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in today for Terry Gross. We're speaking with veteran investigative reporter Michael Moss. In 2013, he wrote a bestselling book about how food companies market highly processed foods with plenty of salt, sugar and fat, a practice that had serious health impacts on Americans. He has a new book which updates the industry's efforts and the food giants' responses to criticism from consumers and health advocates. The book is "Hooked: Food, Free Will, And How The Food Giants Exploit Our Addictions."
There was a lawsuit filed by a guy named Stephen Joseph against Kraft angry about trans fats in Oreos. And trans fats were used in a lot of foods at the time. And Kraft looked at this. The suit didn't get very far. But it caused Kraft, which was owned by Philip Morris, which meant they had a lot of attorneys very familiar with consumer litigation on tobacco - it caused Kraft to look at its internal documents to see what the risks were of repeating the debacle of the tobacco industry, in which internal documents show they knew all about the addictive properties of their product and covered it up. So when Kraft looked at its own internal memos and what they showed about its own concerns about its processed food products, what did they find?
MOSS: They found some things that might be troubling from sort of a public perspective on, you know, aspects of their packaging and their marketing of products that one kind of might be able to interpret as stepping over that line. Because, look; the industry has always kind of insisted, you know, OK, we're companies doing what all companies want to do, which is to make as much money as possible by making our products as attractive as possible. And so we put a lot of effort into making our products attractive. And, sure, we want people to want more and more of them. But we're not intentionally making these products addictive so that people lose control. That's been their bottom line instead of talking and arguing with me.
And I think that their internal investigation, as far as I can tell, didn't turn up any smoking guns in that regard. There were no, like, little memos of their food technologists, you know, laughing to one another, saying, wow, we just made this thing, like, totally addictive. But not just at Kraft, but at other companies, you know, they use other language that's kind of startling when they talk about sort of maximizing the allure of their products. They talk about engineering snackability and craveability (ph). And one of my favorite words hearing from them is moreishness (ph) - right? - as in, you know, wanting - where the person eating that, wanting more and more of it. I mean, these aren't English majors. These are bench chemists and psychologists and marketing executives sort of talking about their efforts to maximize that.
So to Kraft's credit, they were taking a look at their own internal operations to see if they had gone too far, or at least whether there was legal evidence that they had gone too far down the road in purposefully engineering addiction. But the purposefulness of it I don't think actually sort of matters. I think what's even more amazing is kind of their self-knowledge about it, because any number of industry officials that I spoke to don't touch their own products either because, like the former general counsel at Philip Morris, they're worried about losing control or they're just kind of worried about the health aspects of an overdependence on these ultra-processed food products that their own companies are making.
DAVIES: Right. So that was the result of Kraft's executives and lawyers looking at their internal documents. It wasn't like these were made public. The way these tend to get out is if there is a lawsuit and a court says, yes, the discovery process empowers the plaintiffs to get all this stuff. And so the food companies had to consider that, in a world where all of these tobacco lawyers were out looking for other litigation, perhaps, to file, whether down the road they were going to face a court saying you have to disgorge all of these internal documents. They wanted to protect them. What did they do?
MOSS: Well, so again, they sort of scoured their own records. And in this particular case, they settled the lawsuit, which was going after trans fats, not obesity - or not this question of whether these foods are causing us to lose control of our eating habits - they settled that case really quickly so that that lawyer wouldn't have any chance to sort of, you know, do a big discovery and find some other documents that would open up that can of worms for the food industry. So in that case and in subsequent cases - because there haven't been very many attempts by tort lawyer on behalf of plaintiffs to go after food companies from this addiction standpoint for several reasons.
DAVIES: Nonetheless, they sought legislative remedies to keep these internal memos in the vault.
MOSS: Right. So this goes back to Jazlyn Bradley suing McDonald's, the teenager, right? One of the ramifications of that was that the industry got so scared of her lawsuit that they went around to states passing legislation that actually barred people from suing the processed food industry and the restaurant industry for making them overweight or obese so that nobody could even walk in the court and actually begin a case like that. It's sort of extraordinary. Last time I looked, there were, like, 27 states that had passed this legislation to prevent people from suing the companies.
DAVIES: Maybe this is a subtle distinction. But when I read the book, I mean, it seemed to me that you made a clear case that there are biological reasons that we love and will eat a lot of processed food. And we - you detail some of those. I didn't see case - clear evidence that the food industry were aware of these biological connections and then used them to make the food more addictive and that they knew it, that they deliberately said in the same way that the tobacco companies said, yes, we know these - cigarette smoking is addictive. And we're going to continue to push it. I don't see quite the same thing.
MOSS: Yeah. Sort of that insider knowledge, I think, is just kind of built into their system of engineering their products. And so we talk to you about cheapness - right? - and how they use chemical laboratories to drive down the cost of products, knowing that we get excited by them. Another one of the things that we're drawn to by nature to food is variety, right? Humans are very adaptable in terms of liking different products.
There were previous climate changes that caused us to have to change from eating one thing to another. And that's why we were able to spread around the globe and fall in love with things like whale blubber if we were up in the Arctic. So what do the food companies do? They maximize the variety of their product in a way that triggers that natural instinct of us. And so that's why when you walk into the grocery store, in the cereal aisle, there are 200 versions of sugary starch there in the sugar - in the cereal aisle. The companies know that that excites our brain and wants us to - you know, gets us to want to buy more. And maybe one of the biggest examples, too, is that we by nature are drawn to food that has calories because for much of our previous existence, calories - getting calories was a life-or-death thing. It enabled us to put on some body fat, which enabled our brains to grow and us to get through hard times and have more babies.
And so what, though, have the food companies done? They've invented especially these snack foods that are loaded with empty calories, knowing that that causes us to get excited about that, and we'll eat that because it turns out, biologically, we're able to detect calories. We have sensors in the gut, possibly even the mouth, to tell us how many calories are coming in. And so the more calories - calories are almost as exciting to the brain as salt, sugar and fat. And so to your question - sort of, you know, do they sit down and write memos to each other saying, wow, you know, we get it; people by nature are drawn to eating things that are a lot of caloric, so we're going to maximize the calories. It doesn't kind of happen that way. Again, they're just sitting there going, you know, how do we get people to like these products? Oh, OK, let's pack them full of calories; people seem to respond to that.
DAVIES: Need to take another break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Michael Moss. He is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter. His new book is "Hooked: Food, Free Will, And How The Food Giants Exploit Our Addictions." We'll talk more after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MAX MORAN AND NEOSPECTRIC'S "ALL RIGHT")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Michael Moss. He is a veteran investigative reporter. His 2013 book, called "Salt, Sugar And Fat" (ph), documented the practices of American food industry and marketing those products to us. He has a new book which updates the industry's efforts and the food giants' responses to criticism from consumers and health advocates. It's called "Hooked: Food, Free Will, And How The Food Giants Exploit Our Addictions."
Are the food companies guilty of knowingly marketing an addictive product?
MOSS: I have to tell you, Dave, you know, I've been crawling through this industry for 10 years now, and I still resist the idea of looking at them as this evil empire that intentionally set out to make us obese or otherwise ill on their products, right? These are companies doing what all companies want to do - make as much money. But I think one of the problem, too, is that - you know, the problem lies in kind of their own dependence on making their products, you know, inexpensive and super yummy and incredibly convenient for us. And now that more and more people are caring about what they put in their bodies and are wanting to eat healthier, these companies are finding it really difficult to meet that new demand because of their own addiction, if you will, to making these convenience foods.
DAVIES: You know, we look to regulators to help protect us from products that might harm our health. How effective is the Food and Drug Administration in, you know, policing the industry and enforcing some real standards of honesty in their advertising and the packaging? You know, we all - we see these nutritional labels on cereal boxes.
MOSS: Yeah, I mean, I continue to be amazed at how the companies are even more powerful than the agencies that are there to regulate them, supposedly on our behalf. I mean, one of the biggest triggers for compulsive eating and losing control of our eating habits for many people is sugar, and yet even today, when you look at that nutrition facts box on products and it lists, you know, target percentages of things that we should either try to get enough of or avoid getting too much of - the latter being things like salt - even today there's still a blank space next to the sugar because the FDA has been reluctant to go up against the industry and set, you know, a mere recommendation for how much sugar people should eat, even though, you know, entities like the American Heart Association have done that.
And I have to say, it's pretty startling when you look at the numbers that they suggest, the levels, the low levels, of sugar that they suggest, you know, potentially is causing heart trouble for us and other health trouble.
DAVIES: You know, you describe visiting food research labs in this book and in your previous book, and it made me wonder what your relationships with people in this industry are like. I mean, both this book and your previous book are pretty tough, you know, on the food manufacturers. I don't know. Do they talk to you?
MOSS: I think that, privately, they perhaps wish I'd never been born. But by and large, I think they've seen my reporting as being really tough but also fair and accurate. But more than that, having the documents, their own internal documents, describing how they engineer and formulate and market these products, it was those documents that enabled me to kind of find and meet people in the industry. And I have to say, one of the surprising things about this, too, is how many of them have come to have misgivings about their life work, seeing how our dependency on their products has grown over the years in a way that maybe they didn't really intend when they invented things like the Lunchables or the Hot Pockets or so many of these fast groceries in the grocery store.
And I think they were also sort of open to my take on this, which is not to write books that are, like, screeds or attacking them, but just kind of - for me, it's like a detective story. It's like, how do they do it? How do they get us so hooked on our products that we lose our free will and our ability to say no. And I think they sort of appreciate that just kind of basic journalistic approach to looking at their work.
DAVIES: Can you give us an example of someone in the industry who thought differently about their work?
MOSS: Yeah. So I met the inventor of the Lunchables, Bob Draine, who in the very beginning wanted to add things like sliced carrots and sliced apples to the Lunchables but realized that they couldn't figure out, you know, how to keep those things fresh when the Lunchables had to go to the warehouse for weeks or months at a time and then sit in the grocery shelf. I mean, he talked to me because he realized that our dependency on processed food had grown, you know, incredibly over the years. And having invented that in a much more innocent era, he also discovered sort of inside his own family - I think he had two boys and one girl, and his daughter refused to sort of serve Lunchables to her children, his grandkids. And I think that was a moment of awakening for him as well.
But he's one of these insiders in the processed food industry that has begun - has left and has begun helping alternative food inventors sell their products in ways that kind of make sense for the grocery store. And the last time I talked to him, he was helping the inventor of a vending machine that sells fresh salads come up with kind of novel marketing ways using kind of the tricks and the trades from the processed food industry to help sort of market those things on a national basis.
DAVIES: So remind us. What are Lunchables?
MOSS: Lunchables were this creation by - ultimately by Kraft - trays of processed meat and cheese and crackers. And then they came up with different versions that ultimately were marketed to kids as a bring-from-home lunch they could eat at school. And the fascinating thing about it is that the company itself sort of acknowledged publicly that they weren't so much about the food because they even made, like, a cold pizza Lunchables. And when parents were asked, you know, in trials whether they thought their kids would like those, the parents said, are you kidding? Cold pizza - who in the world would like that?
But what Kraft realized - it was not so much about the food, the ingredients, but the empowerment. Lunchables were designed in a way that would make those kids, you know, be the cat's meow when they pulled those out of their book satchels in the lunchroom, and other kids would be envious of them. So in so many ways, Lunchables was kind of an example of kind of the emotional power that these processed food products have over us and in our lives.
DAVIES: (Laughter) Status is a piece of cold, processed pizza. Wow.
MOSS: Yeah. And so they came up with the slogan - right? - which is, you know, all day you got to do what they say, but lunchtime is all yours.
DAVIES: Well, Michael Moss, thank you so much for speaking with us again.
MOSS: Really great talking to you. And thank you so much for having me.
DAVIES: Michael Moss is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter. His new book is "Hooked: Food, Free Will, And How The Food Giants Exploit Our Addictions." Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews some new recordings from singer-songwriter Carsie Blanton that she's described as protest songs and anti-fascist anthems. This is FRESH AIR.
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