रविवार, 3 मार्च 2013

Our obsession with sugar, salt and fat

Our obsession with sugar, salt and fat

 In his new book, "Salt Sugar Fat," Pulitzer Prize winning investigative reporter Michael Moss takes readers on a tour of the $1 trillion processed food industry, and the sights aren't pretty.

The average American eats 33 pounds of cheese and 70 pounds of sugar a year, and health experts say those trends triggered the obesity epidemic that has left millions at risk of heart disease, diabetes and other chronic health conditions.

Based on his interviews with top industry executives from Kraft to Coca-Cola as well as leading food scientists, Moss discusses how we became so dependent on processed food.

How does covering the food industry compare to your other investigative reporting projects?

In some ways the food companies are fortresses. They share so little of what they do with nosy reporters. At the same time, I kind of discovered that food companies are in some ways are like hotels. When you really start meeting the people inside who work [there], there are few precious secrets. People really do love to talk about their work.

I was also incredibly fortunate to come across thousands and thousands of pages of internal documents that shed huge light on the dark corners in the processed food industry and convinced some of the key executives to talk me.

It's pretty widely known that sugary cereals and Cheese Whiz are not good for you. What surprised you?

One of the things that really surprised me was how concerted and targeted the effort is by food companies to hit the magical formulation.

Take sugar for example. The optimum amount of sugar in a product became known as the "bliss point." Food inventors and scientists spend a huge amount of time formulating the perfect amount of sugar that will send us over the moon, and send products flying off the shelves. It is the process they've engineered that struck me as really stunning.

When it came to fat, it was the amazing role of what the industry calls the "mouth feel." That's the warm, gooey taste of cheese, or the bite into a crisp fried chicken that you get. It rushes right to the same pleasure centers of the brain that sugar does, but fat is carrying twice as many calories, so it is more problematic from an obesity standpoint. There is almost no limit to the bliss point in fat. If there is one, it's up in heavy cream some place.

So the companies discovered they could add as much fat as they wanted to products, and unless people looked closely at the nutrition facts, they are going to totally love it more than they would without the fat.

When it comes to salt, what was really staggering to me is that the industry itself is totally hooked on salt. It is this miracle ingredient that solves all of their problems. There is the flavor burst to the salt itself, but it also serves as a preservative so foods can stay on the shelves for months. It also masks a lot of the off-notes in flavors that are inherent to processed foods.

After all your research, do you believe these foods can be considered "addictive?"

That is the one single word that the food industry hates: "addiction." They much prefer words like "crave-ability" and "allure." Some of the top scientists who are very knowledgeable about addiction in the country are very convinced that for some people, the most highly sugared, high fat foods are every bit as addictive as some narcotics.

Their advice to these people is don't try to eat just a couple Oreo cookies, because you are not going to be able to stop. Sugar uses the same neurological pathways as narcotic [products rely on] to hit the pleasure center of the brain that send out the signals: "eat more, eat more." That said, the food industry defends itself by saying true narcotic addiction has certain technical thresholds that you just don't find in food addiction. It's true, but in some ways getting unhooked on foods is harder than getting unhooked on narcotics, because you can't go cold turkey. You can't just stop eating.

The head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse in Washington says that it's more difficult for people to control their eating habits than narcotics. She is hugely empathic with overeaters.

In your book, you talk about how the industry fiddles with the physical shapes of ingredients like fat and salt so they taste better on the tongue. How are companies using this process?

Cargill, among other companies, make numerous versions of salt to meet the particular needs of their customers and their products. I had this vision of salt as chunks coming out of the ground and then thrown into a box.

But in fact, they're manipulated to work perfectly with every special product. There are powdered salts, chunked salts, salts shaped in different ways with various additives to work perfectly with processed foods. All of them are geared to increase allure.

My favorite is the one called the kosher salt. It looks like snow, but is shaped like a pyramid with flat sides that enable it to stick to food better. But where the magic comes in is that it's hollowed out so your saliva has more contact with the salt. Your saliva is what conveys the salt taste to the taste buds, which send the electric signals to your brain. The kosher salt also dissolves three times as fast as regular salt, so you're getting a much larger hit of what the companies call the flavor burst. I thought that was truly fascinating.

Did you know that the food industry has created different kinds of salt to fit their specific products?
Did you know that the food industry has created different kinds of salt to fit their specific product


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