How the food industry hooked us on unhealthy products

Download Flash Player to view this content.

First aired on The Current (07/03/13)

Tony the Tiger, the cartoon character who promoted Kellogg's Sugar Frosted Flakes, is an important figure in Michael Moss's latest book, Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist recently dropped by The Current to talk about the book, and he explained that Tony ushered in a new era of marketing sugary cereals. Ironically, John Harvey Kellogg was a doctor and "hated sugar." But his younger brother Will decided they should try to boost the cereal's popularity by adding sugar. As it turned out, children loved both the product and the character. "The notion of using cartoon characters to sell what was already an irresistible product continued on for years and years and years," Moss said. "And it still does today."


Moss pointed out that "kids are hardwired for sugar," and eating it stimulates the pleasure centre of the brain, encouraging more consumption. Food companies argue they have had no intention of contributing to obesity and other health problems. "But every ounce of their formulation, marketing, advertising energy, goes into making their products irresistible," he said.

Moss described having Howard Moscowitz, who's a legend in the industry and talks about "engineering" foods, walk him through the creation of a new flavour of soft drink for Dr. Pepper. Moscowitz came up with 61 different formulations of sweet flavouring, submitted those to 3,000 consumer taste-testings, then did an analysis of the results and arrived at what he called "the bliss point" -- which is the amount of sugar that gives the optimal sense of sweetness. Moss points out that there's a "bliss point" for various foods, including bread, tomato sauce and yogurt -- and companies exploit them in their products.

It wasn't until "the 1980s and '90s [that] we found out how much sugar was in cereal and other products," Moss said, because companies didn't have to disclose ingredients. But a dentist in Texas conducted his own informal research -- he went to the supermarket, bought a number of cereals and analysed them -- and found that some cereals were as much as 70 per cent sugar. Moss said that food scientists are concerned not only about the level of sugar in things like desserts, but also that it's so ubiquitous.

As for fat, it has twice the calories of sugar, and "when it is in solid form, which is typically saturated fat, which is the fat linked to heart disease, your brain is less apt to detect it as fat," Moss said. Adding sugar to fat makes the brain even less able to recognize it as fat. Cheese is the number one source of saturated fat in the average diet, a trend that Moss traces back to the 1980s, and a marketing campaign by the dairy industry to encourage consumers to eat more cheese, not only on its own, but as an additive to other food.

Compared to sugar and fat, salt is the "most magical ingredient for the companies," Moss said. As well as adding flavour, it's a preservative and it's cheap. It also masks some of the "off-flavours" that are an inevitable effect of industrial processing. Moss went to Kellogg and sampled some of their iconic products without salt. "Frozen waffles lost colour and tasted like straw," he said. "The worst of all was cereal, it tasted like metal."

In his book, Moss describes getting access to confidential documents from a 1999 meeting of CEOs of some of the largest food companies in North America. "A senior executive of Kraft laid at their feet the emerging obesity crisis," he said, pleading with them to take action. But the CEOs reacted defensively, and claimed that they were acting responsibly on behalf of consumers and shareholders.

The Kraft official was voicing the concerns of parent company Philip Morris. In the 1980s, the tobacco giant became the biggest food company in North America, by acquiring General Foods and Kraft. According to Moss, beginning in the 1990s Philip Morris began to worry that the food industry, like the cigarette industry, would lose the public trust because of the unhealthiness of its products.

When asked about the responsibility of the consumer, Moss agreed that choosing a healthy diet comes down to individual choice. "Ultimately we have to take that step to mindful shopping and eating."

Related links: