The processed-food-industrial complex: Weaponized FoodPosted: March 2, 2013
I 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—
MELANIE WARNER: Yeah.
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.