Interview with Michael Moss

Posted by Goodreads on December 9, 2013
Michael Moss can probably navigate any grocery store with the skill of a ninja after writing Salt, Sugar, Fat. Perhaps so can you after reading it. The New York Times journalist spent years researching and writing the best seller, which has since been translated into 12 languages and put the Brooklyn resident in the company of authors such as Michael Pollan as one of the most influential investigative food writers producing work today. Digging into the corporate mind-set and policies that drive food companies to create products that are unhealthy for their consumers proved to be fruitful professionally as well: Moss won a Pulitzer Prize for his efforts. The author of Salt, Sugar, Fat and his early book, Palace Coup: The Inside Story of Harry and Leona Helmsley, spoke with journalist and author James Inverne about his techniques for digging up the real story, how his family eats, and what those of us who work long hours can do to eat better.

Goodreads: You are an investigative journalist, a staffer at the New York Times. It's not uncommon for journalists to write books that emerge from their newspaper work. How much was that the case here? And with all the talk about the revelations in Salt, Sugar, Fat, how much did this feel like a good, old-fashioned scoop? Can you sustain the sense of a scoop across an entire book?

Michael Moss: I had started writing about food in early 2008 in a tangentially related way—I looked at pathogens in food, and that led to the pieces I did in the New York Times about the meat industry having lost control over its ingredients and allowing hamburgers to get infected. It was in the course of looking at that accidental contamination that one of my now-best sources, someone who worked in the meat industry, said, "As tragic as these incidents are, there is this other public health crisis out there, involving things that my industry is intentionally putting into all of our bodies. He was talking about salt, which led me to the holy trinity of sugar and fat and salt.

I have spent much of my career as an investigative journalist looking at big, powerful institutions and trying to understand why it is they make these obviously morally challenged decisions. So for me the hook was not writing about how all the foods we hate to love can make us fat or otherwise ill. It was discovering that the food giants have been acutely ahead of this, even as they continued adding in heaps of salt, sugar, and fat. So that's why the first "aha!" moment for me was coming across the 1999 meeting of the food industry CEOs [an episode recounted in the beginning of Moss's book]. Because this was one of those classic forks in the road, where a powerful institution—a trillion-dollar industry—confronted with a choice and an imperative, made the decision that would certainly contribute to, if not directly affect, the obesity crisis for years to come.

GR: So you've described various motives that are fairly classic for either books or journalism or both, but also techniques. As with that CEO's meeting, which is an opening scene on a grand scale—real drama—you use narrative and almost novelistic devices throughout. Often when starting a new episode in the story, you will give us a telling portrait of the character at its heart.

MM: If you can write in the narrative fashion, it's so important to keeping people's attention. All the more so today. And the three things people like to read about are other people, animals, and sex, right? I learned long ago to craft stories around the people involved. But I also found the people in this to be so intriguing. In large part because so many have come to have regrets about their life's work, including Jeffrey Dunn, the former North America president of Coca-Cola. Each of these stories was an arc to tell that propelled the book forward.

GR: The subject matter of the book rather demands that I ask where you stand personally on a healthy lifestyle!

MM: To some extent I've always been lucky to have had time to exercise regularly. In years past I've been a somewhat serious runner. But I'm also the father of two boys, who are walking bliss points: the satisfaction point for sugar [the food industry's terminology for the optimum for sugar, as described in Moss's book] and our weekday mornings are as nightmarish as anybody's. My wife works outside of the home, like I do, and just getting lunches and breakfasts away is tough, without even thinking about what we're having for dinner! There's a big temptation to rely on processed foods. But we've been trying to gain control over the process rather than let them control us and find ways to chip away at them. So for example, we don't buy processed pasta sauce anymore, because it's easy and less expensive to make your own, and you don't get so much sugar.

As for the kids, you can make little lunches with carrot sticks and apple slices in them, but unless you engage the kids in a conversation about it all, they're going to get to the lunchroom at school and chuck that stuff in the garbage can or try to trade it for Oreo cookies! It's a many-pronged approach that you have to take if you want you and your family to eat more healthily. And I lament the demise of the home economics education, in which girls but also boys were taught to shop, to cook, to be mindful of food. We can't bring that back, but you can do some things.

GR: So at some point when you write a book like this, do you become an activist as well as, or even rather than, a journalist?

MM: I wouldn't consider myself an activist. I still think of myself as a pure journalist, hoping that the power of the facts that I can dig up and present are themselves what will tell, rather than my expressing opinions. This book was powerful because it's not a screed, it's not an essay, it's not my opinion—it's the cold, hard facts. It's reporting from being inside these companies as they make these decisions about what to formulate, market, and produce. Hearing their own people talking about the substantial regrets they've come to have—that's far more powerful than any opinion that I could express. In that same vein the reason Michael Mudd, the former Kraft official who pleaded with everyone, was such a powerful character in the book was that he was one of their own, even a consigliere to the CEOs of Kraft. This wasn't some white-coated researcher or public health advocate.

I would hope I come into this with openness and the driving force of all good, which is the unending curiosity about the world. Which in this case was focussed on, How did we get in this situation of having deep dependence on processed foods, and how did the industry deal with its own recognition that it was at least a large part of the problem? At some point, though, what inspires you in the hard work of the reporting is going to be some degree of moral outrage or concern. One of my guides was just the surging obesity and diabetes rates. And the difficulty that especially some of the most vulnerable people were having when making food choices. Spending time in poor neighborhoods in Philadelphia, for instance, where parents were struggling to provide better food for their kids with very limited access to good choices, those kinds of things can give you the energy to drive on. That emotional power fuels you, while at the same time all your training and skill says you still have to be fair and balanced and accurate and step into the shoes of the people whom you're scrutinizing.

GR: Does the sheer length of a book compared to an article afford creative freedom?

MM: I mistakenly thought when I started the book that I would have the luxury of going down any kind of path that I wanted to, that I had 200,000 words and if I wanted to write about my dog or my kids or take any kind of tangent, I could. But my editor at the Times kindly looked at some early chapters and reminded me that in books, as in news stories, there are things she likes to call "exit ramps." You can write one bad sentence or introduce one irrelevant tangent, and your readers will close the book and move on. If you want to have people read and pay attention, but also finish it and then talk about it—because ultimately every writer hopes to affect the public conversation about important topics— you have to be diligent not only in the research but in the writing.

You have to come up with ways to write as strong a narrative as the facts allow. And the narrative for this book was, Oh, my God, hugely challenging. I like to think of it as this three-dimensional chess game. The title isn't reflected in the structure of the book because right away I realized that sugar was the most powerful of the three ingredients in terms of its association with health problems, so I felt I had to start with sugar. That led conveniently into this arc where the book starts with sugar, which is more about kids, and then moves onto fat, which is more about teenagers and young adults, and then ends with salt, which is more of an older person's issue, with high blood pressure and so on. But even by the time I started writing the salt section, the second section, I couldn't repeat myself, and out of that need came another "aha" moment. Through trying to report on salt in a new way, I realized that the food companies are more hooked on salt and sugar and fat, especially salt, than we are. Whenever they tried to do anything about it, they would get hammered on Wall Street. And that understanding came out of the challenge around the narrative structure. I discovered that it really is a Faustian pact, it's an ancient story in some ways. And they said to me, "Come, let us show you why we can't take the salt out."

GR: How did the companies react after the book came out and was such a success?

MM: I didn't have any direct reaction from them. Privately they were telling people that while they'd rather I didn't exist to write about them, they were relieved in some sense because I didn't paint them as this evil empire intentionally setting out to make us ill, but rather as companies that do what all companies do, which is to make as much money as possible by selling as much product as possible. And they could defend themselves by saying, When they invented some of this stuff, our people's dependency on their products was much less. And that is certainly true. There was a time, almost overnight in the 1980s, when it became suddenly socially acceptable to eat anything, anywhere, at anytime. And also in that I reported fully on situations when they would try and do the right thing only to get throttled by Wall Street and investors demanding higher profits.

GR: Sounds like they almost need a superrebranding process.

MM: Yes. I did a crazy piece for the Times a few weeks ago, asking what would it take for us to eat more fruit and veg? I asked myself, what would the food giants do if they had to suddenly sell just plain vegetables and fruits. They would turn to Madison Avenue and have their genius marketers find ways to hit the emotional buttons that are there for vegetables, like they might be for Doritos. I went out and found an ads firm that makes commercials for Coca-Cola to do an ad campaign for broccoli, one of the more challenging vegetables out there. And they did, and we ran it on the cover of the New York Times Magazine. Food that's healthy for you gets almost none of the marketing power that goes into processed foods.

GR: What are some of the books that have influenced you?

MM: The Power Broker by Robert Caro, a classic in terms of delving into big, powerful people and institutions, with a big narrative drive. The Son by Philipp Meyer, which follows multigenerations of Texans: a great example of how to tell a complex but powerful narrative. And I'm personally a very big crime mystery lover. I love the books of Cormac McCarthy—hugely influential. I adore All the Pretty Horses.

GR: We have some readers' questions for you. Goodreads member Lisa asks about your thoughts on the role of government in food regulation. "Should government officials, such as former Mayor Bloomberg, have the authority to ban or restrict the availability of certain food products? Can we trust the FDA's regulatory practices, given that they may be influenced or even manipulated by big business?"

MM: I write about the government agencies that supposedly regulate the food industry—how the companies are more powerful than they are in many respects. In everything from deciding what goes on the front of the label to even influencing the fine print that tells you what's actually inside it. But it's hard to avoid the idea that you need government regulation to solve this situation. While I'm sympathetic to those who said that Bloomberg illustrated the nanny state of government by deciding what we should eat or drink, if you take government out of the equation, you're not left with a level playing field. You're left with tens of millions of dollars being spent on marketing to try and influence the habits of, especially, kids and really vulnerable people. I put that issue to the former CEO of Philip Morris, Geoffrey Bible, who said he's a fan of government regulation. Because the food industry is so fiercely competitive than for no other reason than to give them some cover from Wall Street, it could behoove them to embrace some kind of regulation.

GR: Goodreads member Heather in Florida is interested in your opinion on Kraft's recent decision to remove food dyes from some of its mac and cheese products. Has a shift started in response to consumer pressure?

MM: The dye issue is reflective of the power that consumers have if and when they can start acting on their concerns about what they're putting into their bodies, and that's what I'm hoping more than anything. The more you know about what the companies are doing, the more able you are to resist marketing. So the dye thing, while I didn't focus on any other additives besides salt, sugar, and fat, there are 50,000 out there mostly because most of them are in such tiny amounts that there isn't hard science yet that they're harmful—there is concern about certain dyes, and the companies will respond if people act.

GR: Goodreads member Charles says that he works a 60-hour week and never has time to cook. So he relies on store-bought and prepared foods and often has no idea of the ingredients, even with the labels, and is confused and concerned. What should people like him do?

MM: Yes, for many people it's even worse than that. They can't afford to buy healthier foods. The only way I can respond to that is to say much of the solution lies in spending some amount of time up front changing habits, because the convenience of processed foods is overhyped. And there are in fact groceries you can buy that aren't too expensive that involve just a little bit of prep work and cooking. More and more food writers are trying to help people with recipes of those foods. So while working 60 hours a week sounds daunting, there are meals you can prepare in 15 or 20 minutes, and really the biggest chore is just up front, figuring out what those are and changing those habits and working them into your lives. Once you've got them down, even shopping can become fast again.

Interview by James Inverne is an author, journalist, and arts consultant who is a former European Performing Arts correspondent for Time Magazine and former editor of Gramophone magazine. He is the author of five books and is working on another.

Learn more about James and follow what he's reading.

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Comments Showing 1-8 of 8 (8 new)

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message 1: by Sbusiso (new)

Sbusiso I'm in south africa Its early 4:00 am I'm reading this,and I like the point of goverment,I think goverment,marketing companies and people like you hv that possitive influence towards thiz situation,but the key player is a consumer who decide what to eat,and the other think I have this idea of,if we can start teaching our kids at school or mybe have regular checkup of kids what they consume,develop devices in school,also classes, seminars or awareness that teach us abt this food nd hidden technics.I think even colous nd packagin of these food to our kids play a negative role.the other day I tryin to figure out why children like bright colours nd this sweets companies uses this attrative packagin.thanks I'm just an ordinary South African who also like to dig more on this things nd you book I'm going to buy

message 2: by Bill (new)

Bill Settlemyer Just today I'm reading an article about homeless and low-income people in my community and how our local food bank promotes a program called "Cooking Matters" a part of the Share our Strength nonprofit that teaches people how to buy and prepare healthy meals on a tight budget. There's great web site, "" that is worth looking over for anyone interested in this issue. I'm guessing that even people who don't fall in the low-income category could benefit from this kind of help.

message 3: by Harvey (new)

Harvey Vaughn jr. If you find this interesting you might like The End Of Overeating by David A. Kessler, M.D. former commissioner of US Food and Drug Administration

message 4: by Mary (new)

Mary I am a big proponent of food education. The more educated I have become about food, the more foods I now avoid. As someone who works in marketing, I'm very analytical with regard to the sales tactics companies use to make food more appealing and to divert our attention from unhealthy aspects. Sounds like Moss covers this in his book, and I'm most interested to read about these methods from a manufacturer's perspective.

message 5: by Harvey (new)

Harvey Vaughn jr. The consumer has no chance of knowing what in the oackage or can. Teh labels are all BS. The food industry ha sdiscovered the magic formula, just the right combination of salt, sugar, and fat. That lights up the same pleasure centers in your brain as Cocaine.
"You can't eat just one!"

message 6: by Chip (new)

Chip Nelson Easiest way for me to lose weight is avoid sugar & fried foods altogether. Works everytime. Problem is Equal/Aspertame turns into sugar once ingested so you need to avoid "sweeteners" regardless. This works but takes real will power. I succeed when I get angry at something.

message 7: by Harvey (new)

Harvey Vaughn jr. Losing weight is something we adults can deal with. What we have to worry about is the generation of kids who grow up sitting in front of their computer, or their desk in school eating junk food 24-7. Their life will be full of problems we (the '50's) knew nothing about.

message 8: by Eileen (new)

Eileen Thanks for posting...this is a terrific article!

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