The processed-food-industrial complex: Weaponized Food

zombie cornI watched Amy Goodman of Democracy Now interview an investigative reporter with The New York Times named Michael Moss. He penned “Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us”.   His recent article–“The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food” was published last –weekend in the Times Sunday magazine. Moss won 2010 Pulitzer Prize for investigating the dangers of contaminated meat.  I’m going to excerpt some of Goodman’s interview and some of the article itself for you.

AMY GOODMAN: We spend the rest of the hour going deep inside the “processed-food-industrial complex,” beginning with the “The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food.” That was the  cover story in the recent  New York Times Magazine that examined how food companies have known for decades that salt, sugar and fat are not good for us in the quantities American’s consume them, and yet every year they convince most of us to ingest about twice the recommended amount of salt, 70 pounds of sugar—22 teaspoons a day. Then, there’s the fat. Well,  New York Times reporter Michael Moss explains how one of the most prevalent fat delivery methods is cheese.

MICHAEL MOSS: Every year, the average American eats as much as 33 pounds of cheese. That’s up to 60,000 calories and 3,100 grams of saturated fat. So why do we eat so much cheese? Mainly it’s because the government is in cahoots with the processed food industry. And instead of responding in earnest to the health crisis, they’ve spent the past 30 years getting people to eat more. This is the story of how we ended up doing just that.

Okay, I’m officially off cheese now.  I don’t eat chips, crackers, sodas, or cookes, but I do eat cheese a lot.  Well, maybe that explains these hips.  But seriously, I’ve noticed how hard it is to eat almost anything or find food that’s not loaded down with chemicals and additives.    Moss’ work is eye-opening.  The industry actually works to make bad food addictive.

The public and the food companies have known for decades now — or at the very least since this meeting — that sugary, salty, fatty foods are not good for us in the quantities that we consume them. So why are the diabetes and obesity and hypertension numbers still spiraling out of control? It’s not just a matter of poor willpower on the part of the consumer and a give-the-people-what-they-want attitude on the part of the food manufacturers. What I found, over four years of research and reporting, was a conscious effort — taking place in labs and marketing meetings and grocery-store aisles — to get people hooked on foods that are convenient and inexpensive. I talked to more than 300 people in or formerly employed by the processed-food industry, from scientists to marketers to C.E.O.’s. Some were willing whistle-blowers, while others spoke reluctantly when presented with some of the thousands of pages of secret memos that I obtained from inside the food industry’s operations. What follows is a series of small case studies of a handful of characters whose work then, and perspective now, sheds light on how the foods are created and sold to people who, while not powerless, are extremely vulnerable to the intensity of these companies’ industrial formulations and selling campaigns.

Goodman has also interviewed food reporter Melanie Warner who wrote “Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal”. 

MELANIE WARNER: Yeah, I’m not much of a scientist, but a number of years ago, when I started covering the food industry, I became curious about expiration dates that are printed on packages. Pretty much you to go into the supermarket, and every package in the store will have an expiration date on it. And I wondered: Well, what will happen? What do these expiration dates mean, and what will happen after this date has come and gone? Some of these dates are actually quite far out; they’ll be six to nine months or even more.

So I started collecting a number of food products, and I saved them in my office. And then I would open them after the expiration dates had passed, sometimes long after the expiration dates had passed because I had forgotten about them. And what I found out over time—I collected all kinds of products: cereal, cookies, Pop-Tarts, fast-food meals, frozen dinners, I mean, you name it. I have all kinds of gross stuff in my office at this point.

And what I found—there were a few exceptions—but what I found was that most of this food did not decompose or mold or go bad, even after long, long periods of time. I mean, I started this seven, eight years ago, and I still have slices of cheese that are perfectly orange, processed cheese.

AMY GOODMAN: From years and years and years ago?

MELANIE WARNER: Years and years and years ago, yeah. And they’re—

AMY GOODMAN: And what keeps their color? And what keeps them looking—


AMY GOODMAN: —completely preserved?

MELANIE WARNER: There are a variety of reasons for this, depending on the product. Sometimes it’s because of powerful chemical preservatives that are in it. Sometimes it’s because of additives that lower the acidity of products, so that no microorganisms can grow. And sometimes it’s because food manufacturers very intentionally remove all the water from products. That’s the case with cereal and cookies.

Well, there we are with the cheese again.  I’ve now learned a new phrase. It’s “process optimization” and it’s not about producing things right the first time.  It’s about making food taste wonderful even when it’s bad for your or its underlying taste is awful.

Moskowitz, who studied mathematics and holds a Ph.D. in experimental psychology from Harvard, runs a consulting firm in White Plains, where for more than three decades he has “optimized” a variety of products for Campbell Soup, General Foods, Kraft and PepsiCo. “I’ve optimized soups,” Moskowitz told me. “I’ve optimized pizzas. I’ve optimized salad dressings and pickles. In this field, I’m a game changer.”

In the process of product optimization, food engineers alter a litany of variables with the sole intent of finding the most perfect version (or versions) of a product. Ordinary consumers are paid to spend hours sitting in rooms where they touch, feel, sip, smell, swirl and taste whatever product is in question. Their opinions are dumped into a computer, and the data are sifted and sorted through a statistical method called conjoint analysis, which determines what features will be most attractive to consumers. Moskowitz likes to imagine that his computer is divided into silos, in which each of the attributes is stacked. But it’s not simply a matter of comparing Color 23 with Color 24. In the most complicated projects, Color 23 must be combined with Syrup 11 and Packaging 6, and on and on, in seemingly infinite combinations. Even for jobs in which the only concern is taste and the variables are limited to the ingredients, endless charts and graphs will come spewing out of Moskowitz’s computer. “The mathematical model maps out the ingredients to the sensory perceptions these ingredients create,” he told me, “so I can just dial a new product. This is the engineering approach.”

Moskowitz’s work on Prego spaghetti sauce was memorialized in a 2004 presentation by the author Malcolm Gladwell at the TED conference in Monterey, Calif.: “After . . . months and months, he had a mountain of data about how the American people feel about spaghetti sauce. . . . And sure enough, if you sit down and you analyze all this data on spaghetti sauce, you realize that all Americans fall into one of three groups. There are people who like their spaghetti sauce plain. There are people who like their spaghetti sauce spicy. And there are people who like it extra-chunky. And of those three facts, the third one was the most significant, because at the time, in the early 1980s, if you went to a supermarket, you would not find extra-chunky spaghetti sauce. And Prego turned to Howard, and they said, ‘Are you telling me that one-third of Americans crave extra-chunky spaghetti sauce, and yet no one is servicing their needs?’ And he said, ‘Yes.’ And Prego then went back and completely reformulated their spaghetti sauce and came out with a line of extra-chunky that immediately and completely took over the spaghetti-sauce business in this country. . . . That is Howard’s gift to the American people. . . . He fundamentally changed the way the food industry thinks about making you happy.”

I make my own spaghetti sauce, but I do put cheese on top of that too.  Drat.  I really must be cheese addicted.

Anyway, I just thought all of this was very interesting and thought I’d share it and this taste of food porn on the side.


29 Comments on “The processed-food-industrial complex: Weaponized Food”

  1. bostonboomer says:

    Thanks for this. I recommended the Sunday Times article in my Thursday Reads post. It was quite interesting.

    • dakinikat says:

      Yes … I saw that … I thought the Goodman interviews were a good follow up for a quiet weekend night.

      • bostonboomer says:

        There is no way in hell I’m going to give up cheese. I don’t eat massive amounts, but I already barely eat any meat. I don’t drink soda unless I’m nauseated. I can’t afford much junk food. But I’m sticking with cheese.

        I don’t know if you saw it, but there’s a new study out in the New England Journal of Medicine that shows that the Mediterranean diet actually works to prevent heart attack and stroke. So much for low fat and low carb.

        Mediterranean diet pyramid

      • roofingbird says:

        I don’t actually understand that pyramid, BB. It appears to represent a relatively high proportion of protein, taking all 3 of the upper sections together.

      • bostonboomer says:

        Huh? Humans need protein. The top of the pyramid represents foods that you don’t eat as often.

      • roofingbird says:

        I know, but compare that the the current published USA guide:…/OriginalFoodGuidePyramids/FGP/FGPPamphlet.pdf

        When you use the USDA chart you have to remember the number of servings and that’s one reason I actually prefer the older basic seven chart published around WWII as a general guide.

        No one is saying give up cheese, but it is an incomplete or lower quality protein. 1 oz. of regular hard cheese is approximately 110 calories. Since a slice is hard to visualize or varies, I go by one cubic inch, at around 70 calories. That’s roughly equivalent to a medium apple. If you eat 2 cubic inches of cheese that could mean you are replacing it for other nutrients for the day that you might have needed in your diet.

        Wine is probably fine if it represents the portion of calories you might give to an occasional dessert.

        My point about the pyramid was that there was no reference to the number of servings. You can see that you should eat more of the bottom rung, but how much more is uncertain. If you decided to eat twice as much fruits and vegetables as the next rung up, the chart would still be out of balance.

      • bostonboomer says:

        If you go to the website, it does list servings per week. You must not have read the study or the reports on it. The study wasn’t about calories or weight loss. It was about preventing heart attacks and strokes. The point was to test an ancient human diet that has been consumed for centuries in Greece, Spain and other Mediterranean countries for centuries.

        The people who consume this diet are tend to be very healthy and long-lived. Most people don’t do well if they are obsessed with servings, calories, etc. If that’s what you like to do, as opposed to eating for health and enjoyment, then you should ignore the study results.

        I posted the study because I thought it was interesting and the nutrition community is very excited about it. Nutritionists have known for decades that the Mediterranean diet is healthy, but this is the first controlled, randomized study that looked at results, rather than focusing on risk factors. Frankly, the most powerful risk factor for heart disease and strokes is genetics.

        We are talking past each other, because I was interested in the science of this study, and you seem to be focused on weight loss (I think?).

      • roofingbird says:

        Yes it is interesting BB. I looked at the supplemental and found this:

        […The general guidelines to follow the Mediterranean diet that dietitians provided to
        participants included the following positive recommendations: a) abundant use of olive oil for
        cooking and dressing dishes; b) consumption of ≥ 2 daily servings of vegetables (at least
        one of them as fresh vegetables in a salad), discounting side dishes; c) ≥ 2-3 daily servings
        of fresh fruits (including natural juices); d) ≥ 3 weekly servings of legumes; e) ≥ 3 weekly
        servings of fish or seafood (at least one serving of fatty fish); f) ≥ 1 weekly serving of nuts or
        seeds; g) select white meats (poultry without skin or rabbit) instead of red meats or
        processed meats (burgers, sausages); h) cook regularly (at least twice a week) with tomato,
        garlic and onion adding or not other aromatic herbs, and dress vegetables, pasta, rice and
        other dishes with tomato, garlic and onion adding or not aromatic herbs. This sauce is made
        by slowly simmering the minced ingredients with abundant olive oil. Negative
        recommendations are also given to eliminate or limit the consumption of cream, butter,
        margarine, cold meat, pate, duck, carbonated and/or sugared beverages, pastries, industrial
        bakery products (such as cakes, donuts, or cookies), industrial desserts (puddings, custard),
        French fries or potato chips, and out-of-home pre-cooked cakes and sweets.
        The dietitians insisted that two main meals per day should be eaten (seated at a table,
        lasting more than 20 minutes). For usual drinkers, the dietitian’s advice was to use wine as
        the main source of alcohol (maximum 300 ml, 1-3 glasses of wine per day). If wine intake
        was customary, a recommendation to drink a glass of wine per day (bigger for men, 150 ml,
        than for women, 100 ml) during meals was given. Ad libitum consumption was allowed for
        the following food items: nuts (raw and unsalted), eggs, fish (recommended for daily intake),
        seafood, low-fat cheese, chocolate (only black chocolate, with more than 50% cocoa), and
        whole-grain cereals. Limited consumption (≤1 serving per week) was advised for cured ham,
        red meat (after removing all visible fat), and cured or fatty cheeses…]

        I take it from this that one serving of meat was given a day. So I think the chart should reflect that. Alcoholic drinkers were switched to wine, but the study chose to keep a spectrum of drinkers as part of the test, as opposed to testing only non drinkers.

        I think we are on the same page. I really don’t care about calories except as they apply to proportions of nutrients in an overall diet. Everything in the above study suggestions are nutrient dense, except alcohol. Also, as they say above, limited consumption was advised for red meat and cured or fatty cheeses.

      • roofingbird says:

        The other thing I would say is that with only one serving of meat a day, your saturated calories are really reduced as well. Olive oil or other worthy oils would make up this difference, which would be good. However, if you ate more meat than they recommend the diet would become unbalanced.

        • dakinikat says:

          I only eat meat once a day and usually something small like a 3 oz breast of chicken or a pork chop or a fish or beef filet. Never eat more beef more than once a week.

      • bostonboomer says:

        This is the website I was referring to.

    • roofingbird says:

      Thank you, that was really interesting. It’s like a giant lobby group considering the board reps and the contributors. It’s not bad or good, it just gives you a better idea of their perspective.

      I would say that the Med. diet is certainly ethnocentric and though not ancient, is maybe 450-500 years old. Old forms of low gluten wheat were around, but pasta, and rice are noted in their diet at about the time of the Silk Road. The high lycopene tomatoes, chocolate and most legumes, along with potatoes and corn were introduced as part of the Spanish travels to the Americas. In terms of human history that is an nano second of food knowledge.

  2. Fannie says:

    Today was the first time in years that I went to McDonald’s………..grandkids. I ended up with grilled chicken wrap no cheese, no sauce just lettuce wrapped in a flour tortillas. I kinda got talked into it, but told them here out it was frozen yogurt with fruit and nuts. I’ve ordered the book, and hope to take more action in eliminating some foods. I’ve started using flaxseed on just about everything…………gave the cheese up, except for quality cheese, and very little of it. I do eat dark chocolate (Lendt’s) 85% cocoa, has much less sugar, and I feel good when I do indulge. I don’t know what in the world I’d do if I lived in Nawlins………..

    Yes, that Mediterranean diet is the key, and because of that I use olive oil on everything. And like the mayo with olive oil. I still have a issue with my corn chips……………that I am hooked on, and have given up most sugar, most breads, and red meats, noodles and potatoes. I gave the salt up, things are bland, but I try spicing it up. Salt is in everything, just everything. I cook turkey breast every week and eat more seafood, and more beans, and I like using polenta.

    I think writing everything down help you really take a look at what’s going on…….and then break it down to smaller serving, which is my problem, cause I want more than 1/2 cup……….Good news is that eggs are good for you, and you can eat them daily, and I will do a omlete and use 1 egg & two egg whites…………I order it that way in resturants too. Habits are hard to break.

    • dakinikat says:

      I use olive oil all the time. I also eat lots of yogurt. My fav snacks are berries and nuts. My big weakness is wine and cheese.

      • bostonboomer says:

        The diet in the study reported in the journal article I posted recommends 6 -7 glasses of wine per week for people who can tolerate it. Small amounts of wine are protective and have lots of antioxidants. Cheese isn’t poison, and it has been eaten for thousands of years by the people in Mediterranean countries where people live the longest and are the healthiest. It’s not junk food unless you’re talking about processed cheese.

        • dakinikat says:

          Wow … now i feel better about my wine. I have no desire to drink until dinner or after but they used to guilt trip you for drinking like a european.

        • dakinikat says:

          Also i love affine and red hook cheddar. I buy the good stuff because i just eat a few slices at night with my wine and then usually have some sliced strawberries.

      • bostonboomer says:

        From the NYT:

        The findings, published on The New England Journal of Medicine’s Web site on Monday, were based on the first major clinical trial to measure the diet’s effect on heart risks. The magnitude of the diet’s benefits startled experts. The study ended early, after almost five years, because the results were so clear it was considered unethical to continue.

        The diet helped those following it even though they did not lose weight and most of them were already taking statins, or blood pressure or diabetes drugs to lower their heart disease risk.

        “Really impressive,” said Rachel Johnson, a professor of nutrition at the University of Vermont and a spokeswoman for the American Heart Association. “And the really important thing — the coolest thing — is that they used very meaningful endpoints. They did not look at risk factors like cholesterol or hypertension or weight. They looked at heart attacks and strokes and death. At the end of the day, that is what really matters.”

      • bostonboomer says:

        A little more:

        Heart disease experts said the study was a triumph because it showed that a diet was powerful in reducing heart disease risk, and it did so using the most rigorous methods. Scientists randomly assigned 7,447 people in Spain who were overweight, were smokers, or had diabetes or other risk factors for heart disease to follow the Mediterranean diet or a low-fat one.

        Low-fat diets have not been shown in any rigorous way to be helpful, and they are also very hard for patients to maintain — a reality borne out in the new study, said Dr. Steven E. Nissen, chairman of the department of cardiovascular medicine at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation.

        “Now along comes this group and does a gigantic study in Spain that says you can eat a nicely balanced diet with fruits and vegetables and olive oil and lower heart disease by 30 percent,” he said. “And you can actually enjoy life.”

        The study was stopped because the findings were so clear that it would have been unethical to continue having the comparison group continue eating a low fat diet. What many people don’t realize is that the diet industry is also in the business of making money and, as such, they also keep their customers coming back. A diet that works won’t do that.

      • roofingbird says:

        6-7 glasses at 110 calories. Does that seem reasonable to you?

        If you think about the oceans of people who have lived and their historic habits, are there any who consumed alcohol for other than religious, or periodic events? Or because wine represented a seasonal harvest?

        As a CA native, I don’t trust the current push for wine. We have developed a huge lobby in the field. If you want resveratrol eat seeded grapes or mulberries. Does anyone eat grapes, 6-7 times a week? If you want antioxidents eat raspberries, oranges and other fruits and veggies.

        For that matter I feel the same way about olive oil. I use it but not in everything.

  3. Is this the same report that talked about Yoplait yogurt? And how the company put so much sugar in their product?

    • roofingbird says:

      Brown Cow, Straus’s or my own. Plain and whole milk only, unless I buy the flavored ones for dessert.

    • quixote says:

      Yup. It’s that report.

      There was a similar watch-in-fascinated-horror public tv documentary on the subject years ago. 1990s? It followed the production of a junk food, sort of like Cheetos, starting from the inspiration taken from a gourmet food, like a French pastry cheese straw. They spent a good bit of time on how much work went into making sure you couldn’t eat just one.

      The contrast between the delicate pastry at the start, a few pieces artfully arranged on a china plate, and the glop extruded at the end has stayed with me to this day.

  4. Fannie says:

    When I go out for yogurt……….it’s fat free and sugar free………….maybe once a month or so. But even then I am trying to stay away from all of the fat free/sugar free ingredients too. It seems like a no win situation………well, you can buy the double by pass burger, 1 lb beef, layers of bacon, cheese, and sauce, or even the triple by pass with 1 1/2 lbs of beef………..then I heard the guy there just died at the Heart Attack restaurant.

    I have been reaching out to the elderly when I go into large stores, Costco, or Winco’s…….conversing with them about diet, cost of food, and nutrition…………….I have pointed a few the better choices, but I do enjoy my chats with them, the little old men too.

  5. quixote says:

    About improbably preserved food. Dak, as a New Orleanian will really appreciate the full horror of this story. When I lived there, I often took the fire exit up to my third floor office because that was much shorter. Those stairs were also a favorite place to sit and eat lunch.

    Well, one day somebody got bored with their Taco Bell beef-n-bean burrito (it had the wrapping paper with the company logo) and left most of it in a mess on the stairs. First thought: ewww. Second thought: no problem. Our ever-present New Orleans rats will disappear it.

    After one day: still there. Two days: still there. Not even slightly gnawed. Absolutely untouched. Strange. Surely their noses are better than that? Hell, even I, a mere human, can detect that beef-n-bean smell. Three, four, five, six days later: still there, still untouched.

    Wow. What does it say when the discriminating alley rat turns its nose up at your food?

    But the most amazing thing was not that the garbage was still there two months later. The custodial staff had been cut back. The amazing thing was that in N’Awlins May and June, 80-90F and plenty of humidity, it had not decomposed at all.

    • quixote says:

      And in case you’re wondering why I didn’t throw it away, it was because after the first few days it became a sort of field experiment to see how long it would take for something, anything, to eat that stuff.

    • dakinikat says:

      omigawsh … that does say a lot if the rats won’t touch it.

  6. Hyperjoy says:

    This is so timely, thanks! I just got a diabetes type 2 diagnosis Friday and am going to be changing my dietary habits and getting more exercise.