Are Food Giants to Blame for American Junk Food Cravings?

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: And next, a recent global survey showed that the pandemic and lockdowns have led many to cut back on exercise and eat more junk food. But what is

really in all those favorite snacks? Our next guest is Pulitzer prizewinning journalist, Michael Moss, and he focuses on the food industry.

His latest book is “Hooked: Food, Free Will and How the Food Giants Exploit Our Addictions.” And you’ll want to hear the alarm bells that he’s ringing

with Hari Sreenivasan


HARI SREENIVASAN: Christiane, thanks. Michael Moss, thanks for joining us.

First, the premise of the book, the word hooked, is addiction the right frame to be looking at how we related to food? I mean, isn’t it

biologically necessary?

MICHAEL MOSS, AUTHOR, “HOOKED”: Well, look, if we had this conversation five years ago and you had suggested to me that Twinkies were addictive as

heroin, I would have thought like, that’s totally no so, right? I mean, where’s like the big caustic chemicals that you find in drugs or, you know,

who ever heard of armed robbery of a convenience store, right, like you might a pharmacy? And why does only sort of some people get hooked on these

food products?

But I have to say that sort of crawling back, you know, into the underbelly of this trillion-dollar industry and talking to drug experts who now —

drug addiction experts who now study food addiction. I’m convinced that in many ways these products are more addictive, more problematic for us than

cigarettes, alcohol and even some drugs.

SREENIVASAN: Why? I mean, is it the constituency of what goes into our bodies, how we’re manipulated? I mean, what part is the most dangerous to


MOSS: Yes. So, it’s a combination of things. In my first book, “Salt Sugar Far,” I wrote about attitudes, right? Because they are able to kind of

perfect their use of those three ingredients, especially to sort of wow us and send their products flying off the shelves, right? They call sugar the

bliss point and they’ve marched around the store now so that two-thirds of the products by one estimate has added sugar to us and get us excited about


Salt they call the flavor burst because it’s typically in the outside of a snack, it touches the tongue, it goes to the reward center of the brain, it

tells us, yummy, let’s get more of that snack. That is like is mouth feel of biting into a toasted cheese sandwich. And you can probably tell, I’m

more of a fat than a salt guy because my brain is lighting up just kind of thinking about that.

But the thing I realize in reporting new book is that they’re also tapping into our basic biology. And as one of the scientists that’s been telling

(ph) with pushed back a little bit and he said, you know, Michael, it’s not so much that food is addictive, is that we by nature are drawn to food and

even to overeating and the companies have changed the nature of our food so dramatically in the last 50 years to causes overeating to become this every

day thing.

SREENIVASAN: When you look back in different parts of history, you don’t see this idea of overeating and obesity, you see it as fuel for what you

need to accomplish during the day. How did that relationship change?

MOSS: Yes. So, spending time with evolutionary biologist, as I did, is like so enlightening. I mean, we by nature are dawn to food that’s

inexpensive, easy to get. I mean, think back to hunter-gatherer societies, it made a lot more sense instead of chasing down the antelope for dinner.

Just grab that poor aardvark that’s sitting, right?

And so, why the food industry uses chemical laboratories they call flavor houses to mix and match their ingredients with one overarching goal, which

is to reduce the cost of the products knowing that will get so excited to buy a box of toaster pastries that cost $0.10 less than it did the week

before. We, by nature, are drawn to a variety because getting a bunch of different things kind of meant, you know, a shortness of getting enough

nutrition. Well, that’s why you walk into the cereal aisle and there’s 200 versions of sugary starch they’re fooling us into thinking we’re getting


And maybe the biggest thing that’s a problem for us now is that we, by nature, love lots of calories. I don’t know this, but we have sensors in

the gut, possibly in the mouth that tell us how many calories are coming in and we get excited by more calories, possibly even as much as we get

excited by sugary things.

And so. what did the food industry do, they created snack foods especially gym packing them with, you know, a whole day’s worth of calories in one

package that our biology, our brain or our gut, aren’t able to sort of deal with because it’s so (INAUDIBLE), something that’s hit us in the past 50

years and there’s this mismatch between their kind of like exquisitely engineered highly processed products and our genetic ability to sort of

say, hey, wait a minute. Is this really something I want to be eating, this entire bag of snacks?

SREENIVASAN: You also, in the book, talk about how we have personal memories with food that are so sort of sense powerful and the industry

knows that too.

MOSS: Yes.

SREENIVASAN: I mean, we’re all human beings and we have a relationship with food and somehow, they’re able to engineer, whether it’s an ad

campaign or a flavor, to trigger that in us.

MOSS: Memory is one of those factors that actually leads me to say that these products are even more problematic than cigarettes and alcohol

because we begin forming memories for food at an incredibly early age, possibly even when we’re still in the womb depending on what our mother’s

been eating, and we hold those memories for the rest of our life and often associate them with other emotions like good times.

I went into a Kellogg’s research and development factory where they were doing various experiments, and a big batch of Pop Tarts had messed up and

they were dumping the leftovers into a bag (ph) to get rid of and that instantly took me back to my grade school years as a latch key kid when I

would come home, let myself in and put a pop tart in the toaster oven.

The power of memory and smell, you know, that these products create don’t disappear. And this is why the soda companies, for example, learned that

they could put a soda in the hands of a kid when he or she is with his parents at the ballpark. You know, that — the joy of that moment will

forever stay with them. So that later in life, if they’re wanting comfort or they’re wanting joy, they’ll think of that soda and associated with it.

SREENIVASAN: Look, I can see somebody watching this and saying, oh, come on. I mean, we have agency. Don’t we have responsibility in this entire

engagement with food? I mean, to blame it all on the companies, seems like we’re total victims here.

MOSS: Yes, I hear you, but, you know, the addiction fact to this, and I open the book with the story of Jazlyn Bradley, one of the teenagers who

sued McDonald’s for making them overweight back in the early 2000s, and kind of everybody laughed except the judge because one of the points in the

case, which, by the way, she got slaughtered in court.

McDonald’s one eventually. But he was intrigued by this notion of addiction because if there is something about these products that drives our

consumption, that causes these cravings that are so powerful that overwhelms the brain, then they’re able to sort of destroy our free will,

and kind of this notion of personal responsibility flies out the window.

But let me tell you something else. I mean, tobacco denied for decades that smoking was addictive. And then in the year 2000, Philip Morris the biggest

tobacco company of all and also in the year 2000, the biggest manufacturer of processed foods completely flipped around and said, OK, you’re right.

Smoking is addictive. And that same year, CEO of the company was asked to define addiction and said, well, addiction is a repetitive behavior that

some people find difficult to quit.

Well, let me tell you, I sat down with the chief — the former chief lawyer of the company, Steve Parish is the name, and he was telling me how he was

one of those people who could smoke a cigarette during a business meeting, put the pack away and have like a no — you know, no inkling to take that

pack out again until the next day. But he said, Michael, I couldn’t touch one of our Oreo cookie bags for fear of losing control, opening the bag and

eating half of it right there in one setting. Right?

Which gives you this sense because, you know, insiders in these companies know how powerful their products can be. For some of us, not all of us, but

some of us, depending on kind of our vulnerability, which can change from hour to hour, day to day and person to person.

SREENIVASAN: Explain that connection between big tobacco and big food, were they are essentially using a similar playbook because they were just

trying to figure out how to get somebody to use more of the product, whether that was cigarettes or cheese?

MOSS: Yes. So, when Philip Morris, for example, bought General Foods, Kraft and then Nabisco, they were able to coach their food division

managers on ways to sell products, including kind of at the checkout counter of the grocery store, knowing that we are — where cigarettes used

to be sold or maybe still are, you know, knowing that that’s a really kind of a high vulnerability area for when we are shopping.

But one of the things that absolutely intrigued me about tobacco is that, in the early 2000s, it was none other than the Philip Morris Tobacco

managers who kind of privately turned to their food division managers and warned them that their over reliance on salt, sugar, fat and some of these

other things we’ve been talking about that get us hooked on their products is going to cause them trouble with obesity and type 2 diabetes, you know,

even more than tobacco is facing with cancer and et cetera.

And they were warning their food division people to sort of back off and do things to lessen their own dependency on using those additives and making

their products sort of so convenient. And I have to say that in the early to mid-2000s, Philip Morris pulled out of the food industry.

SREENIVASAN: Are there companies that are actively targeting us to addict us to their foods? And are they knowingly, intentionally doing it?

MOSS: Yes. So, that’s a that’s a key question. So, the industry will always push back, has always pushed back. And they said, look, Michael, you

know, OK, we’re companies. Our job is to sell as much product as possible and we’re going to do everything we can to maximize the aurora (ph) of our


And they hate the word, the A word, addiction, right? But they will use words like snack ability and crave ability. And my favorite is moorishness

(ph), right? I mean, these aren’t like English majors, they’re bench chemists and marketing people talking about their efforts to kind of

maximize their lure.

And no, I don’t think they’re sitting around going, how do we get people addicted to their products, but they are sitting around going, how do we

get people to really love our products so they want more and more of them. And to their defense, many of these things were invented in a more innocent

era when our dependence on convenience foods wasn’t what it is now.

SREENIVASAN: You also point out that there’s an enormous weight loss industry. I mean, what’s sort of interconnectedness here between big food

and weight loss?

MOSS: So, not only are these companies exploiting, if you will, our basic instinct that draws to food, they also began exploiting our efforts to

regain control of our eating habits. And so, when obesity began to climb in the early 1980s, late 1970s, none other than the biggest process food

companies begin buying up some of our favorite dieting methods. We’re talking Weight Watchers, Slimfast, South Beach Diet, Atkins became owned by

the biggest processed food companies. I had no idea.

But kind of even more problematic than that, they began marching through the grocery store and inventing a new diet version of their products. So,

you’d be standing in the freezer aisle and there would be the hot pockets, then there’d be the lean pockets right next to them. The difference between

the two, not as dramatic as you might think. And then it’s kind of like up to you to decide, well, which one am I going to eat this week, and

typically maybe what you’ll find is you’re going to be going back and forth between the two.

But another kind of — you know, what it is, is kind of this effort on the industry to blame us, to kind of shift the responsibility for dealing with

their products. And I have to keep saying that this isn’t our fault, this isn’t a matter of no freewill, no personal responsibility, no willpower.

These products are so exclusively designed to get us to want more and more that that’s just not part of the equation. We have no ability to say you

know if we’re in the clutches of this product.

SREENIVASAN: How does price factor into this and convenience too, because depending on where you live, you could be in or near a food desert where

there is much less access to fresh vegetables and fruits but there is a ton of access to processed foods that are package, that are ready to go and

this is what you can afford and this is what’s near you?

MOSS: Yes. One of the kinds of hugest problems out there, I mean, you walk into the grocery store, well-meaning by your health, your family’s health

and you’re confronted with the fact that a basket of blueberries, especially kind of shoulder season, offseason, it’s going to cost as much

as a 2-pound, 3-cheese 4-meat frozen pizza that’s going to feed the whole family.

And so, how are you supposed to spend — how are you support do what every nutritionist tells us to do, which is fill up half of your plate with

vegetables and the whole fruits if that’s going to cost you so much more so.

So, you know, if I was king for the day and had a ZIP code to sort of concentrate on, right, to focus on, there would be like 10 things you want

to do to change in order to level the playing field for people, and you’d start with that garden for school kids to get them excited about radishes.

But then you’d have to work on the agricultural system in the subsidies and the research and development money so that their parents have a store where

they can buy fresh radishes but don’t have to pay an arm and a leg to sort of get those and bring them home.

SREENIVASAN: So, I mean, what can consumers do? I mean, let’s say you’re talking to somebody who is a bit price constrained, who finds themselves a

little bit in a bind of making these choices and, ultimately, also, feels like, you know what, my grocery buying decision today is not going to

change the entire food industry that’s sort of aimed at my brain?

MOSS: Yes, of course, no. But you could change your own habits. And I love this sort of seeing out there is more people caring about what they’re

putting in their bodies. And to come back to the addiction thing, just sort of briefly, there are some lessons we can learn from drug addiction that

will help us really regain control of our eating habits.

I mean, so, if you’re somebody who has like that 3:00 pm craving for cookies, what we’ve learned from drugs is that that craving is so powerful

and so able that’s going to destroy freewill that you have to get ahead of it. And so, no matter what your strategy is, whether it’s to get up and

stretch or call a friend or try to eat something else a little better for you like handful of nuts, you need to be executing that strategy at like

2:55 in order to get ahead of that 3:00 pm craving.

But for the rest of us, you know, who is troubled with kind of big food is just — maybe it’s just like the loss of the ritual and the beauty of those

kind of home cooked meals that we had with family and friends. I think the strategy there is to turn the tables on these companies a bit and reclaim

some of the things they took for us so that convenience is actually something we can use ourselves and try to cook more.

I’ve got a spaghetti sauce recipe down to 93 seconds. I kid you not. Granted if it simmers a while my family’s more apt to eat it. But this idea

that we need these hyper processed foods for their convenience is a bit of a myth and there’s lots of things we can learn to cook for ourselves which

does all kinds of magic in terms of your eating habits and your family’s health and your health.

SREENIVASAN: Michael Moss, thanks so much for joining us.

MOSS: Thanks for having me.

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