New Book Highlights How Junk Food Makers Get Us Hooked

Author Michael Moss talks to MSNBC. (Photo: Snapshot from MSNBC).

In 2010, New York Times investigative reporter Michael Moss took on the meat industry, earning a Pulitzer Prize for his work. Now the food industry sleuth has set his sights on the junk food business. His book on the topic, “Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us,” will be published by Random House this month.

It all began when the reporter was investigating a surge in E.coli outbreaks in meat when an industry source told him that the bigger public health hazard was what companies were intentionally adding to their products, starting with salt. He looked, he was shocked, he wrote a book. And his findings are nothing short of depressing.

Through extensive interviews with past and present industry insiders, scouring scores of documents, and years of investigation, Moss unveils any number of tricks and strategies intended to do one thing only: sell more products. If it means endangering the health of the nation by boosting salt, fat and sugar levels, so be it. As it stands, a third of Americans are obese. The number one reason, according to Moss, is potato chips.

Among his many findings, he writes about what scientists call "bliss spots," the point when the sugar and salt levels are just exactly right; the point where you continue to want more, but don’t get bored or overwhelmed by the flavor. The point where you don’t want to stop eating. These levels are determined by labs designed to find them, and “crave consultants” in white coats do the dirty work.

The amount of research done on perfecting the desirability of junk food is staggering. Frito-Lay had a research complex near Dallas, where nearly 500 chemists, psychologists and technicians conducted research costing up to $30 million a year. Sadly they weren’t finding a cure for cancer, but analyzing issues of crunch, mouth feel and aroma of snack items. According to an excerpt from Moss’ book published in The New York Times, their tools included a $40,000 device that simulates a chewing mouth to test and perfect the chips, discovering things like the perfect break point. (Most people like a chip that snaps with about four pounds of pressure per square inch. Who knew?)

One of the most perfect snacks ever invented, according to food scientist Steven Witherly, is Cheetos. “This,” Witherly told Moss, “is one of the most marvelously constructed foods on the planet, in terms of pure pleasure.” He described a dozen attributes of the Cheetos that make the brain say “more.” But the one he focused on most was the puff’s uncanny ability to melt in the mouth. “It’s called vanishing caloric density,” Witherly said. “If something melts down quickly, your brain thinks that there’s no calories in it ... you can just keep eating it forever.”

The processed food giants have spent decades allocating tremendous amounts of money in engineering perfectly addictive products and then relentlessly and often unscrupulously selling these products. Says Moss, the effects “are seemingly impossible to unwind.”

In an interview, Moss offers these three tips to break the grasp that the junk food industry may have on you:

1. The most alluring products — those with the highest amounts of salt, sugar and fat — are strategically placed at eye-level on the grocery shelf. You typically have to stoop down to find, say, plain oatmeal. (Healthier products are generally up high or down low.)

2. Companies also play 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.

3. 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.