Journalist Michael Moss: Greater Health Awareness Slowly Changing Food Giant Ways

Apr 21, 2015

Michael Moss, author of 'Salt, Sugar and Fat: How the Food Giants Got Us Hooked.'
Credit Tony Cenicola / Michael Moss

For decades, food companies have been deliberately bumping up the salt, sugar and fat levels in processed foods to get us hooked. And those unhealthy foods have played a big part in our current epidemic of health problems, including obesity and diabetes. So argues Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Moss in his 2013 book “Salt, Sugar and Fat: How The Food Giants Got Us Hooked.” KCUR caught up with Moss recently when the author was in town to speak at the University of Kansas Medical Center.

We’re in a part of the country that produces a lot of corn syrup, which is now a big part of our diets. How has our diet changed the way we use the land and the way agriculture operates?

So, the last time I looked, some 90 million acres in this country are being planted in field corn, perhaps soybean as well, versus 5 million for all fruits and vegetables. That’s one sort of huge change in the landscape. A year ago for the (New York) Times, I did stories about corn farmers, field corn farmers who were switching over to fruits and vegetables, because it turns out you can actually, per acre, make a lot more money growing apples or broccoli or spinach. The key, though, the challenge, is how to market those things. So the other thing that’s sort of happened is that there’s an incredibly powerful marketing/transport system for field corn that doesn’t exist for that Kansas or Illinois farmer who wants to grow apples or row crops. They’re working on developing marketing systems for fruits and vegetables like that. So I think we’re starting to see a very slow change in that regard, but your question goes to – yeah, field corn and soybeans has come to dominate American agriculture as staples in highly processed foods.

What role does agriculture play in that shift? I mean, have farmers and agribusiness been providing what food manufacturers demand, or have they been sort of steering that change as well?

I think so far responding to what food manufacturers want. And there’s sort of a heavy influence, I think, in terms of agricultural education and resources. And the amount of money that goes into research and development – again, the last time I looked – some $2 billion every year is spent on looking for ways to make field corn and soybeans more productive, more profitable for farmers. And the last time I looked, the number for fruits and vegetables was down at a $100 million for all fruits and vegetables in terms of research and development, making them more productive, more profitable. So this imbalance – this is a structural imbalance here that weighs heavily in the favor of field corn and soybeans and against fruits and vegetables. But you’re starting to see, especially from agriculture extension operations that are holding classes for farmers who want to switch from field corn to fruits and vegetables – and I sat in on one of those classes, and it’s really, really fascinating, because it’s an entirely different agriculture. Growing row crops is in many ways a lot harder than field corn. It’s less mechanized. You’re more dependent on labor. There’s lots of pesticide or no pesticide issues to consider. Water consumption. Insurance is difficult to get for row crops versus field corn against bad weather incidents. It’s riskier. And so it’s a real challenge for farmers wanting to switch over to produce.

Food makers and anyone who makes products for consumers tries to make what they produce as appealing as possible to consumers. What responsibility do food makers have to the American public, to eaters in general?

I think their policy up until now has always been: Look, we make what people want, and if they want more whole grains in their product or if they want lower fat or high sugar, we’ll try to give them that. But the bottom line is, we can’t put products in the grocery shelf that people won’t buy. We will go out of business, so we have to respond to consumer demand.

But in the last few months, I think we’ve seen a real turn in terms of shoppers acting on their desire to eat healthier. You’re seeing one large food company after another report just horrible earnings reports to Wall Street. And they are all now scrambling to figure out ways to make healthier versions of their products. And one of the things they’re up against is that they have become so reliant on using lots of salt, sugar, fat – for lots of reasons, not just to make their products really attractive and alluring – that they’re really difficult to cut back on those in meaningful ways and/or substitute in better ingredients.