Michael Moss, a New York Times investigative reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner, spoke about his effort to expose harmful impacts of the processed food industry and its advertising strategies in a lecture Wednesday.
Moss drew heavily from his 2013 book Salt Sugar Fat: How the Fast Food Giants Hooked Us in his talk. He recalled reporting on the Iraq War in 2008 for the New York Times when he said his editor assigned him to write about a salmonella outbreak in the U.S. caused by tainted peanuts from the Peanut Corporation of America.
“These peanuts were being used as ingredients in this $1 trillion processed food industry about which we really know very little,” Moss said. “That outbreak became the story about how that industry had lost control over its food chain.”
Moss said this first experience with food safety reporting later led him to report on an E. Coli outbreak in Minneapolis in 2007, food industry.
Moss said a conversation with one of his sources shifted his attention to the massive amounts of salt being added to many food products.
A desire to expose an overdependence on salt, sugar and fat additives in processed food became the impetus for much of the research for his book, according to Moss.
He added that he was able to interview “key players” in large food companies about their marketing strategies to understand the appeal of unhealthy food.
“This is an industry that strives 24/7 not just to get us to like their products but to want more and more of them,” Moss said. “The problem lies in their deep dependence on using lots of salt, sugar and fat to get to that ideal product.”
Moss explained that this “ideal product” would combine low cost, convenience and utter irresistibility. He said a tour through one of the Kellogg Company’s factories opened his eyes to the importance of additives such as salt in taste, color, solubility and texture of processed foods.
Moss said he tasted prepared snacks made without any salt and said the frozen waffles tasted like straw, corn flakes tasted like metal and he could not even swallow the Cheez-Its.
“That’s when I really got how dependent we’ve become on large amounts of salt, sugar and fat, Moss said. “The industry itself is even more dependent on them which is a real problem for now.”
Processed food companies are constantly looking for ways to reduce the amount of salt, but these innovations do not address concerns from most nutritionists about how consumers should eat more fruits and vegetables, according to Moss.
“One of the most difficult things for the processed food industry is not decreasing the bad ingredients but increasing the good stuff,” Moss said.
His lecture, “A Journey into the Underbelly of the Processed Food Industry,” was the first of the Spring 2016 Messenger Lecture Series, according to Prof. Thomas Björkman, horticulture.
The series was commissioned by Dr. Hiram Messenger 1880 in 1924 to “improve the moral life on campus by bringing in public figures to speak to us on issues of today,” according to Björkman.