What You Need to Know About Processed Foods

person on a highwire above fatty foods
Are you above the temptation of these tasty but not-so-good-for-you foods?.

Lightspring / Shutterstock

A confession: I hate processed foods. I don't eat them now and I wasn't allowed to eat them growing up. It wasn't a deprived childhood; I enjoyed cookies and pies, hamburgers and fried potatoes, grilled cheese sandwiches, and chocolate, all of it homemade by my grandmother (and as soon as I was old enough, by me.) I went to McDonald's twice in my life before I turned 16.

As an American, I realize I'm a freak.

Based on flavor, I avoid Hershey's chocolate like the plague (it tastes like brown wax), Doritos (too salty), and Oreos? The center of one of them is like soft white plastic compared to real buttercream frosting made with butter.

Cover of Salt, Sugar, Fat book
Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. Amazon.com / Treehugger

So it was no surprise to learn that most processed food is engineered to the hilt, as Michael Moss uncovered in graphic, specific, and very, very damning detail in his 2013 bestselling book, "Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us." To me, engineered food tastes like just that — real food that's been ripped apart and "Photoshopped" with levels of some flavors amped up and others dampened, all of which is done not only so we choose one product over another because it's tastier, but so we consume more food, year over year.

Obviously, getting people to eat more than they need so that your company can make a buck isn't sustainable. When what you're doing starts killing people, people start to take notice.

If you've made a commitment to eat better this year, it might help to realize that when you're feeling like you're "craving" a certain not-so-great snack, that addiction has been carefully engineered by people who don't have your best interests at heart. I spoke with Moss to understand a bit more about this subject. (So take it from him, someone who enjoys junk food in small amounts!)

Treehugger: Your book, which looks at the food industry's manipulation of salt, sugar, and fat, is a huge hit and bestseller. Do you think that's because people were shocked by what they read or because they had kind of suspected something was up with processed food in the first place?

Michael Moss: Probably some of both. One of the strengths of the book was the treasure trove of original documents that put the reader at the table of the largest food companies, and how they were marketing and scheming onto our grocery shelves, as well as interviews with key industry insiders, who came to have misgivings about their life's work. For the first time, we're inside this trillion-dollar biz. The overwhelming sense is that this industry isn't just getting people to like their products — but getting us to eat more and more.

Is there a good way to understand the scope of how much American health issues are related to processed food?

The basic one is that food-related diseases, including deaths, have approached or surpassed smoking as the number one public health hazard in America. It's the ancillary of the idea "you are what you eat" — we've become sick from what we eat. Some of the health issues out there are truly staggering. Over 40 percent of adults 40-60 are not just overweight but clinically obese. Another 22 million have Type 2 diabetes with another 79 million pre-diabetic. In dollars and cents, some of the costs of obesity from lost productivity and healthcare reach $300 billion a year. Not since smoking tobacco have we seen such concern about something tied to our health and financial well-being.

Is there a category of food that's worst? Like is it cookies or chips or frozen breakfast sandwiches, or soda?

I came to think that the biggest challenge for people is not from things we know are junky like ice cream, cookies, or even chips. The big challenge comes from the middle part of the grocery store from the food we don't think of as unhealthy. Fast food-type products like Lunchables, which are not eaten for food appeal, but for playground status.

The most troubling aspect of this issue is that sugar and other flavorings aren't just in foods that are obvious 'naughty snack foods' but have been added to 'basic' foods as well. What are some of the most surprising additions?

The biggest danger is the march of sweetness: Bread has added sweeteners now, and yogurts, especially those designed and packaged for kids, can have sugar levels close to ice cream. Pasta sauces can have a couple of Oreo cookies' worth of sweetener in a tiny half-cup serving. It's created this expectation that everything can be or should be sweet. That's been the most difficult thing for people to deal with — not candy per se, but food that should be healthy but isn't. It's hard to go into the grocery aisle and not see things without sweetener. Some 75 percent of processed foods have added sweetener.

Soda is ... highly problematic — there are people in the soda industry who think it's really responsible for obesity. And one of the troubling aspects of sugary drinks comes from science saying that we're less able to deal with sugar in a liquid form. It's hard for brains to put on breaks for liquid consumption over solids.

Do you have any healthy eating advice for people who might recognize that they have addictions to some of the processed food mentioned in your book? Is cold turkey best? Weaning? Replacement? (I don't consume sugar, but I do use honey and maple syrup, for example. Does that work?)

It really depends on the person, because having issues with foods tend to be on a sliding scale. I've attended a Food Addicts Anonymous meeting, and there are people there convinced they can't touch a grain of sugar or wheat without going nuts. So for them abstaining works. Other people can have a couple of Oreos and put them away. The ideal is not abstaining from junky foods; rather than them controlling me, I control them. I can close the bag and put it away and not think about it.

I generally love Michael Pollan's motto: "Eat real food, not too much, mostly plants." And thankfully you can find lots of real food in the grocery store and there are some tricks that are fantastic, that work whether you are living in Oregon, or anywhere else. For example, frozen blueberries are less expensive than buying fresh out of season, and you can sprinkle them on cereal and they thaw in a minute. There are a bunch of places in the grocery store that you can buy, store, and prepare real food from.

What are you working on next?

Working on my next book, for Random House, called "Hooked: Food and Free Will," which looks at the matter of food and addiction.