We chat to author Michael Moss about how the ‘big food’ industry uses everything from emotional to scientific methods to target our eating habits, and what we can do to steer away from the temptation
We all know that processed food is both tasty and bad for us. Whatever you want to call it — fast food, junk food, packet food, factory food — processed foods often contain a carefully calibrated combination of fat, sugar and salt that makes us want more, more, more.
We carry the heavy results of this fast, easy moreishness on our bodies, as the food industry exploits our evolutionary preferences for sweetness and fat. The industry has 56 different kinds of refined sugar at its disposal to make its products irresistible, so no wonder we always want more.
Pulitzer prize-winning writer Michael Moss follows his 2013 best-seller, Salt Sugar Fat: How The Food Giants Hooked Us, with a further exploration of how big food continues to make us bigger. His new book, Hooked: How Processed Food Became Addictive, looks at how the food multinationals have engineered their products to be addictive in a manner similar to drugs, alcohol and tobacco. Moss draws parallels between big food and big tobacco, using a definition of addiction coined by a CEO of tobacco giant Philip Morris: “A repetitive behaviour that some people find difficult to quit.”
As our continued reliance on and preference for processed food results in increasing obesity and poor health outcomes, Moss likens the arc of processed food to that of tobacco. “What started in the US has spread throughout the world,” he says. “The tobacco industry originally concentrated on the North American market, but as people became cognisant of the dangers of smoking, the industry refocused on emerging middle classes in developing markets.”
A similar trajectory is happening with processed food. “France used to think America was insane for all its snacking, but now it’s catching up.” The difference between tobacco and industrial food is that it’s far harder to prove culpability; being fat and addicted to processed sugar and fat is still widely regarded as a personal matter. A lack of willpower, rather than the result of products specifically engineered to send your brain chemistry into insatiable crave mode.
A substance does not need to contain opioids, nicotine or ether alcohol to hook the human brain. Our brains contain their own arsenal of chemical rewards, and it turns out that “measured in milliseconds, and the power to addict, nothing is faster than processed food in rousing the brain”. Big food knows this and uses everything from marketing tricks that trigger nostalgic childhood memories to harnessing neuroscience — actual MRI scans of the brain lighting up when the tongue comes in contact with processed foods — to keep us wanting more.
The industry, he says, weaponises our own evolutionary biology: “Our entire body — from nose to gut to body fat — is designed to get us not just to like food, but to want more and more of it.” This worked well when we were wandering the savannah thousands of years ago, hungrily seeking out anything more calorific than a twig, but not so well in a world of cheap abundant palatable foods, enticingly packaged and available everywhere. A world where US consumer activist Ralph Nader describes triple cheese burgers as “weapons of mass destruction”.
“It’s hard to see through the marketing, which employs ideas that the products are fun, cute, harmless,” says Moss. “We have an incredible situation where we allow these companies to dictate what we eat. The vast majority of soya beans and corn grown are used in ultra-processed foods — from childhood on, we have handed the multi-nationals our entire food system. Taste, food memory, everything. However, I don’t see them as some evil empire, we can’t expect them to act philanthropically, although they should have some obligations beyond profit making.”
So what can be done? Legislate against cheap foods containing a combination of fat and sugar that they light up our brains like pinball machines? “I’m not optimistic about government intervention,” says Moss. “Hats off to Michelle Obama (who established the Let’s Move! taskforce on childhood obesity during her time as First Lady), but even her husband couldn’t nudge the industry towards making healthier products, because that industry is so powerful.”
The only force that can change big food is consumer preference. Us, and what we want. It’s pretty clear that no matter how fat we get, no matter how much cancer, heart disease or type 2 diabetes we develop, no matter how our healthcare systems buckle under our processed diets, as long as we continue with our purchasing preference for cheap mass produced foods, that’s what big food will keep churning out. This is despite giants such as Nestle seeming “astonishingly earnest” in its wish not to addict us. Moss was in the room with 60 of the multinational’s product developers when chief technology officer Stefan Catsicas spoke of wishing to remove some of Nestle’s biggest-selling products from shelves.
But real change can only be consumer-led. Think of how even five years ago, veganism was still considered a bit out there. Today, thanks to increased consumer demand, there’s a plant-based version of everything from Hellman’s to Ben & Jerry’s to cheap sausages. Still all heavily processed, of course, but a clear example of how big food morphs its products to meet changing preferences. The good news, says Moss, is that mainstream awareness of food and health is growing. “More people are caring about their bodies and what they eat,” he says.
The aim of Moss’s book is to raise awareness of how our bodies work and how the industry works to “lay out all that the companies have done to exploit our addiction to food so that we might reverse engineer our dependence”. This is a major task given how “we, through our nature, can be unwitting conspirators”. And that’s before you ever consider the economics — how a €3 frozen pizza will feed a low income family rather more successfully than a €5 punnet of blueberries.
“The focus is on us for solutions,” says Moss. “It’s great putting vegetable gardens in elementary schools so that kids can get excited about radishes, but then their parents need to be able to afford to buy the radishes.”
We also need to be mindful of marketing. Words like ‘natural’ and ‘healthy’ have, through overuse, been rendered meaningless. One academic, Marion Nestle (no relation!), examined 166 studies funded by the food industry, and discovered that just 12 of these studies could be interpreted as contrary to the funding companies’ interests.
“To wit, kids who eat more candy are skinnier, said research funded by a candy association,” writes Moss. “Mars, the makers of M&Ms, identified compounds in chocolate that are good for our hearts.” Research paid for by Nestle (the company, not the academic) showed that skipping lunch was bad for you, so you should eat their processed snacks instead. It goes on. Flavour and fragrance laboratories, neuroscientists, behavioural psychologists, all paid to harness our hardwired likes and cravings.
“There are many things we need to be doing simultaneously,” he says. “There needs to be government intervention, companies need to sell better products, and we need to revisit food in schools. We need to teach kids about the politics of food. I don’t mean lecturing them on nutrition, more about encouraging kids to be aware of the choices they are making. Children respond better to this kind of conversation, and it’s much easier to create good habits than to undo bad ones.”
So we need to teach our kids how to buy, prep, and cook real food. Or even grow some — you don’t need a garden. A window box, a yogurt pot, is enough to show kids where food comes from.
On a practical level, there is much we can do beyond educating ourselves and our kids about what we accept as ‘food’. Moss suggests creating new food memories rather than allowing big food to implant our brains with processed nostalgia. We can become more aware of the hidden costs of cheap products, which we will ultimately pay with our health. We can see through the diet industry, often owned by the producers of the same processed foods that got us fat in the first place. We can exercise more — endorphin release “can lead to the kind of harmony that stabilises our eating”. Moss’s personal favourite first step away from poor food habits “is to stop drinking anything with calories”.
It’s not necessarily about going hardcore on lentils and blueberries (unless you want to — wholefoods are far cheaper, tastier and more satisfying than you’d think). It’s about “taking charge of our food preferences by developing new habits”. And to be aware of big food and how it mimics our preferences — for example, adding processed protein to processed foods because protein is a buzzword. Moss warns: “When we change what we eat, and the companies change what they make to address that, we have to be ready to see through that.”