"My Brilliant Friend" by Elena Ferrante is the first of the mysterious Italian author's Neapolitan novels. The series tells the story of a life-long friendship between two working class girls in Naples. Critics have called Ferrante “one of the greatest novelists of our time.” Yet nobody knows her true identity. Join Diane and her guests for a discussion of “My Brilliant Friend.”
Processed foods account for roughly 70 percent of our nation’s calories. Despite the growth of farmer’s markets and availability of organic produce, food additives are nearly impossible to avoid. Diane and her guests talk about what goes into our food and how it affects our eating habits.
- Melanie Warner author of "Pandora's Lunchbox: How Processed Food Changed the American Meal."
- Michael Moss investigative reporter for The New York Times and author of "Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us."
- J. Justin Wilson senior research analyst at the Center for Consumer Freedom.
Read An Excerpt
Excerpted from “Pandora’s Lunchbox” by Melanie Warner. Copyright © 2013 by Simon & Schuster, Inc. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Despite the growth of farmer's markets and the availability of organic produce, Americans are eating more processed food than ever before. Here in the studio to talk about what goes into processed food and how manufacturers affect our eating habits, Melanie Warner who has written a new book titled "Pandora's Lunchbox," Justin Wilson with the Center for Consumer Freedom and joining us from New York, Michael Moss of The New York Times. He's written a new book titled "Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us."
MS. DIANE REHMThroughout the hour, I'll be interested to hear your comments, questions. Call us on 800-433-8850. Send us an email to email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Good morning to all of you.
MS. MELANIE WARNERGood morning.
MR. MICHAEL MOSSGood morning.
MR. J. JUSTIN WILSONGood morning.
REHMGood to have you all with us. Melanie, let me start with you because you did some interesting experiments with processed foods. Tell us about that.
WARNERI did. It was something that happened, somewhat inadvertently, a number of years ago when I started writing about the food industry. I just became interested in the expiration dates that appear on packaged food. If you go into the supermarket, pretty much every food product has an expiration date somewhere on it. And I just wondered what would happen to this food after these expiration dates came and went. Would the food go bad? Would it start smelling? Would it ever mold?
WARNERSo I just started collecting various types of products from the supermarket and it gradually expanded over time and I incorporated in some fast food meals and I pretty much have every different kind of product sitting in my office. And the result is that most of it, there were a few exceptions, but most of it never went bad, never molded, never decomposed and...
REHMEven beyond the date?
WARNERBeyond the expiration dates.
WARNERI mean, I started this seven years ago so, and I have a lot of it sitting in my office and I'm still able to work in my office. There's not a horrible stench preventing me from working.
REHMAnd so after all these years, you're saying that this processed food with expiration dates of whatever are still good?
WARNERYeah, well, it's not good to eat. You wouldn't want to eat it. A lot of it...
REHMAre you sure?
WARNERYeah, I have tried some of it, a bit reluctantly, and some of it has off-tastes and if there's oil in it, the oil has gone rancid. So you wouldn't want to eat it, but the point is that there was no decomposition and no mold and there are a variety of reasons for that depending on the product.
REHMAnd that makes you wonder what's in that processed food?
WARNERA little bit. In some cases it's because there are powerful chemical preservatives in it so that prevents decomposition. Sometimes it's additives that have lowered the acidity levels so that no microorganisms can grow. And sometimes it's just a matter of the fact that there's no water in it. Microorganisms need water to grow. So a lot of food processing ends up removing all the water from a product in order to enhance its shelf life.
REHMMelanie Warner, she's author of "Pandora's Lunchbox: How Processed Food Changed the American Meal." Turning to you now, Michael Moss, you have a new book that's titled "Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us." How did they hook us?
MOSSFor me, Diane -- and by the way, I commend Melanie for the bravery of tasting those foods after all that time because I start out looking at pathogen outbreaks in hamburger. And at one point, one of my most trusted sources in the processed food industry said, look, Michael, if you want to see -- as tragic as these cases are, if you want to see something that's making larger numbers of people ill, look at what's intentionally added to processed food namely salt, sugar and fat.
MOSSAnd I found myself really being inside a detective story getting these insiders, key executives at food companies, to open up and tell their secrets about all of the energy, money, mathematics and science they put into their formulas and marketing of foods and my source was totally right.
MOSSIt turns out that salt, sugar, and fat are the three pillars, the Holy Grail, if you will, on which the food industry, the processed food industry survives. And they have found, through their own research, that when they hit those most perfect amounts, they'll send us over the moon. Their products will fly off the shelves. We'll buy more, eat more and they'll make more money.
REHMBut turning to you, Justin Wilson, you argue that processed foods are simply a part of our culture and maybe not quite as bad for us as Michael Moss would imply.
WILSONIf you think of the food, the community of people who really care about the foods that they eat, I think, you know a lot of the listeners today, and myself included, we should recognize that there are a lot of inherent contradictions in what we believe and what we know.
WILSONSo, for instance, we may go to a high-end restaurant and order a plate of charcuterie and cheese and get a glass of wine. Those, of course, are the three earliest processed foods, oh, and some olives, of course. Or we might go to another nice restaurant and enjoy a molecular gastronomy course of 30 meals, meals that have been made with a variety of chemicals that when we go to the grocery store or read Melanie's book, we would demonize as being dangerous.
WILSONOr even, you know, when I read Michael's book and then read Melanie's book in the last 18 hours -- sorry if I have some bloodshot eyes -- I think what I recognized was that there was a difficult -- we have, on one side, food scientists who are working day in and day out and I think a lot of the reasons why they allowed Michael access to their laboratories was because they are proud of the work that they do to make food that is both tasty, cheap and available to consumers.
WILSONAnd then, when I read Melanie's book, I realized that at the same time, we have this sort of inherent distrust in science. And when we look at industries generally, right, especially when we talk about "Science Friday" on NPR, we generally say scientists are good. They're trying to make us live a better life.
WILSONAnd then, all of a sudden, when it comes to the foods that we eat, there is this inherent distrust in the attempt and ability of science to try to make foods that are available to as many people as possible, maximally healthy and affordable. But there's one word you're leaving out that Michael Moss is putting in and he is arguing that salt, sugar and fat are three items that go into processed foods that hook us. Michael, how do they hook us?
MOSSYou know, if there's one word the processed food industry hates it is addiction. And they argue that, look, when it comes to food, there are certain parameters of addiction that's used for narcotics that just aren't there. But at the same time, it's a marvel to see what they put into their efforts to make their products as alluring. They love that word craveable, appealing.
MOSSLet's start with sugar. I interviewed and spent some time with a gentlemen, a legend in the food industry, Howard Moskowitz who invented, engineered as he says, a new flavor of soda. And to get that done, he had to come up with dozens and dozens of different formulas, each slightly different from the other to hit what he called the bliss point for sugar.
MOSSWhich you can do your own experiment, take a cup of coffee and gradually had sugar to it. You'll get to a point where it's perfect, if you like sugar in your coffee. And then you'll add more and you'll not like it as much. That's what goes on in the formulation of so many products in the grocery stores when it comes to sugar. The bliss point is the perfect amount that will have that product appealing to you the most and, as I said, send us over the moon.
REHMMelanie, how do you see all this? The idea that processed foods have become part of our diet and yet Michael's point, that indeed manufacturers of these processed foods are inserting, injecting ingredients deliberately to get us to want more of that very food.
WARNERYeah, I think that -- I mean, Michael makes some excellent points and some excellent revelations and the idea is that there's so much more technology that goes into our food production than we realize. The extent of it is much more vast and he reveals quite a lot of that in his book.
WARNERI look at food processing. There's so many different food products in our food system. And I think to Justin's point, you have to make a distinction between what we're really talking about when we refer to processed food, which is highly-processed food. And these are -- I like to think of it as a food or a product that you cannot make at home, in your home kitchen with those same ingredients listed on the package.
WARNERSo I would argue that something like charcuterie and lots of other things that we can buy at the grocery store, like frozen vegetables and canned peas, these do not fall into the category of highly-processed food. You could call them minimally-processed food.
REHMWould you agree with that, Michael?
MOSSI think that's a great definition that Melanie has come up with. Look, there's some processing that -- there's a lot of processing of food that we all indeed love and enjoy and as she pointed out, it's highly processed and it's this high dependence on large amounts of salt, sugar, fat and other ingredients. That's the issue here.
REHMWould you agree with that distinction between processed, highly-processed, Justin?
WILSONIt's a distinction, I think, without a difference. If you look at whether it's cheese or it's olives, the amount of salt in something like that, of course, is as high as many of the things that are being demonized as highly-processed.
WILSONTo go to Michael's point, this notion that there's this conspiracy theory, that deep in the caves of these restaurants and food companies that are trying to make food taste good, is that it's a conspiracy theory that occurs in kitchens across the country, across the world in restaurants. Everyone, of course, wants to make food that tastes good and we don't want food that's bland. And the idea that food companies are investing money to do this of course is -- of course they are.
REHMJustin Wilson, he's senior research analyst at the Center for Consumer Freedom. We'll take a short break here and when we come back, we'll talk about addiction in food and get your thoughts. Stay with us.
REHMAnd in this hour, we're talking about the extent that processed foods have become part, a very large part, of the American diet. Here in the studio with me, Melanie Warner. She is a former New York Times reporter and now author of "Pandora's Luchbox: How Processed Food Changed The American Meal." Justin Wilson is senior research analyst at the Center for Consumer Freedom. And by the way, I asked him who funds his organization. He said many food companies and restaurants.
REHMOn the line with us is Michael Moss. He's an investigative reporter with the New York Times, author of a new book titled, "Salt, Sugar, Fat: How The Food Giants Hooked Us." Now, here's a question for you, Michael, about the so called bliss point from Diana in Baltimore who says: Is there any evidence that the bliss point is changing over the years as people become acclimated to higher sugar levels or whether it seems to be innate across cultures?
MOSSThat's a great question and close to Baltimore I spent time with a fabulous research center that's also funded by the food industry. And they look at it a little differently. One of the things that's a concern to the scientists there is that sort of the growth and the spread of sugary sweet taste in foods has helped shape our pallets so that we now expect to find sugar, not just in the soda aisle but in the spaghetti sauce aisle. There are sauces with the equivalent of two Oreo cookies worth of sugar in a mere little half cup.
MOSSAnd I think that's something that is very troubling to people who are concerned about childhood obesity is that the processed food companies have helped teach children to expect sugary food -- sugary tastes in almost all of the foods that they're eating.
REHMIs there sugar in baby foods?
MOSSThere has been in the past. And I know that companies years ago set out to reduce the amount of sugar that they were intentionally adding to baby foods. You know, one difficulty by the way with sugar is there's so little labeling. The companies are not required to tell us how much they actually add and how much is inherent in the food from, say, tomatoes or carrots, which makes it really difficult for moms and dads going into the grocery store to shop and figure that out.
REHMAll right, one thing I used to be addicted to was potato chips or Doritos.
MOSSOh, you and me both.
REHMTalk about the combination of salt and fat in those two products.
MOSSI love the potato chip. Salt to food companies, they describe it as having what they call the flavor burst. That's a miracle ingredient for them. It's inexpensive, 10 cents a pound. It not only provides flavor, but it provides crunch and durability, and it covers off notes or bad flavors that are inherent to many processed foods. So you can eat the potato chip and that salt hits your taste buds. Instantly, it goes to the brain, which says to you, Diane, and to me, Michael, eat more. Then of course you got the fat.
MOSSThey're loaded with fat, which is, in some ways, is more powerful than sugar. It's called by scientists sort of the invisible fat, because solid fat, the saturated fat, which is linked to heart disease, can sneak up in -- up on the brain and not trigger those signals that tell you, hey, slow down here. You're getting twice as many calories in the fat as you are in sugar. But, you know, the really amazing thing about the potato chip is that they're loaded with the third pillar sugar.
MOSSIt's not added to the chips, but the starch itself begins converting to sugar as soon as you put it in your mouth. And thus there's been some recent studies out of the fabulous nurses' health study that have shown that the single largest contributor to weight gain in this country now is the lowly potato chip.
REHMHow fascinating. And I was also told it takes 21 days to stop an addiction to potato chips, which I am happy to tell you I achieved. Melanie, what do you think of all that?
WARNERWell, I think it's part of all of this addictiveness or craveability or whatever you want to call it of processed food and especially kind of the junkiest of the processed food has contributed to the fact that we now consume 70 percent of our calories from processed food or highly processed food. So it's not, you know, it's not a matter that we need to go to zero and eat no processed food and that the world does not need any food scientists.
WARNERI like to think of it as a ratio and rebalancing the ratio. Although if people are truly addicted to Doritos and potato chips and that forms the foundation of their diet, they may have to go cold turkey. Get off that right away.
REHMBut -- sure. What about going back to basics? What about instead of buying the frozen broccoli or the frozen peas, you buy fresh broccoli, fresh asparagus. Talk about the cost.
WARNERYeah, I mean, that's the ideal, right? And it's kind of a misnomer or a myth to think that healthy food and fresh food is too expensive for people. Or that eating healthy is a luxury of the rich. You can go into any supermarket, there are tons of examples of foods for meals that you can buy and cook at home for the same amount of money or sometimes even less money than you could going out to a fast food restaurant.
REHMWhat about that, Justin? First the addictive qualities that Michael and Melanie had talked about. Second, why not promote going right back to basics?
WILSONI think what we are losing track of is what an addiction really is. And in one sense, of course, we're addicted to food. Anyone who's tried to go cold turkey...
REHMNo, but special foods.
WILSONYou know, when Michael says that we are addicted to salt, sugar, and fat, he's talking about three of the five tastes that we have and we're leaving sour off, right? That being said, there would be very few foods that we would not then define as being in one way or another addictive. The fact that food tastes good and that people find pleasure in it is not in itself addictive. Now, the researchers that have looked at the question of addictiveness find that people do have the, quote-unquote, "pleasure centers" of their brain light up when they eat food.
WILSONBecause people enjoy eating. There's nothing wrong with that. But when you look at the quantity of dopamine released from a pleasurable meal versus, say, a drug addiction you find that it is ten-fold less. That people enjoy it slightly and then they go back to normal. Whereas when we conflate a real addiction that has short-term acute health issues associated with them versus an attempt to move beyond personal responsibility.
WILSONWhich in large part this move towards redefining food as being addictive is, is really problematic both in terms of what it does to our understanding of what addiction is in a larger context, but also the way that it turns people into victims. And that is a dangerous precedent that we're setting in terms of when we tell people it's not your fault that you've put on weight, it's the food company's fault. People put on the weight by putting the food in their mouth more than they probably should have and not getting enough physical activity.
WILSONAt the same time, it's going to take personal responsibility for them to lose it. And when we convey to them that they are just victims and that the industry needs to change for them to lose weight, we are only setting ourselves up for continued failure.
MOSSI just wanted to comment on two things Justin said. One is to go back a few minutes to his use of the term conspiracy theory. I don't see a conspiracy theory in the food industry. Companies convincingly argue that they have never intended to make America obese or otherwise ill. They consider nutrition to be one of the fundamentals they're interested in, along with convenience and low cost. But that said, they can see that their scientists drive so hard to hit these perfect formulas.
MOSSAgain, to the second point, I'm not saying that people are addicted to salt, sugar, fat. I love salt, sugar, fat in my home cooking and use it liberally. And there's no way I can ever get to the levels that are used in the processed foods that we buy in the grocery stores. What's the issue here is the copious amounts of salt, sugar, fats that are being used. And I have to tell you, I was skeptical of the term addiction until I went to visit Nora Volkow, the head of the National Institutes on Drug Abuse.
REHMWho has been on this program.
MOSSA Bush appointee, I might point out. And she convinced me that through her neurological work that she's done over the years that for some people the most highly fat, highly sugared foods are every bit as addictive as some narcotics. And she, in fact, goes on and says for those people, it's even harder to get off those foods because we can't go cold turkey on food like we can on narcotics. And she advises those people to stay away from those most alluring craveable foods. You're not going to be able to limit yourself to two cookies.
REHMWhat about the nutrition elements in processed packaged foods, Melanie?
WARNERYeah. Well, there's a big distinction to be made when you're cooking at home and you're using salt, sugar, and fat which I do as well. I love all three of those ingredients. You're also getting a whole lot of other nutrients with that food. You're getting vitamins and minerals, you're getting antioxidants and other phytochemicals that scientists are just starting to understand about in food. You're getting fiber.
WARNERSo you are getting a whole complex of things that are healthy that our body needs and that also help us perceive that we're actually eating a meal and help us feel full. And the meal is more satiating. Whereas when you're eating those ingredients with processed food, a lot of highly processed foods, that's really all that you're getting. You're not getting much in the way of other -- of nutrition. You're getting salt, sugar, and fat.
REHMWhat about that, Justin?
WILSONYou know, I think when we -- let me back up a little bit. We did a bit of an analysis. And we took Mark Bittman's cookbook. You know, he's the New York Times columnist, How to Cook. And we compared his recipes with the recipes of a famous processed food, frozen food manufacturer. On a serving by serving basis to keep everything standard and what we found is that consistently Mark Bittman's recipes had more calories and more salt oftentimes than what was being put in by this famous brand of frozen food manufacturers.
WILSONAnd like I said, this is on a serving by serving basis. Now, I think in response to what Melanie was saying, what I found so interesting is that I was talking to a doctor once and he said take a multivitamin. If you eat empty calories, take a multivitamin and you'll get all of those nutrients all the way up to your maximum daily allowance. And a lot of people don't do that. And I think it's good that we're actually increasing the amount of functional foods that provide these things to us.
WILSONBut let's not allow them to become calorie distracters. I'm borrowing that terminology from Marion Nestle, who says that when we put -- when we allow corporations that sell foods marketed as extra healthy for us and they say that this is high in one thing or high in another that are supposedly good for us, we lose sight of the fact that those calorie -- that those foods may have just as many calories.
WILSONSo when a soda company would say that, you know, I saw a soda company that's local that you would see, that marketed its soda as being made with hand-bagged pure cane sugar. And I said that means nothing come on.
REHMJustin Wilson. He is at the Center for Consumer Freedom. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're going to open the phones now, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Feel free to follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Let's go first to Louisville, KY. Good morning, Dixon, you're on the air.
DIXONGood morning, thank you. I have appreciated what's been said. My focus is on nutrition. And despite all of that increase in the multibillion dollar industry that the vitamin companies have had, we haven't seen a tremendous decrease in disease. But my question really is, in reference to food companies and their motive. It is hard to trust some of these companies and because of historical accounts of companies adding ingredients that are not necessary even for the taste or the nutrient value of the food, which then turn around and become addictive.
DIXONThe most popular one, which is a little controversial, would be a soda company, Coca-Cola and then other companies as well beyond the food industry, but like with Phillip Morris and some of the other additives to tobacco products. I'll take my comment or the answer off the air.
REHMAll right, thanks for calling, Dixon. Michael Moss.
MOSSYeah, I'm so glad you used the word trust. I walk the readers of my book through this amazing scene in the '90s when none other than Phillip Morris raised the trust question. I have to back up. Phillip Morris became the largest food manufacturer in the United States through its acquisition of General Foods and then Kraft Foods. But starting in the '90s, Phillip Morris like other tobacco companies, came under huge pressure for nicotine. Phillip Morris was the first company to endorse regulation.
MOSSAnd the reason they did it, the former CEO company explained to them which they felt they were in danger of losing everything. They were in danger of losing the public trust. And here's the fascinating thing that happened. He turned to his food division people, starting in the year 2000, and said to them, you folks are in danger of losing the public trust on your food with salt, sugar, fat, and obesity if you don't start getting a handle on that and figuring out how to deal with it.
MOSSWhich is an incredible moment where you had Phillip Morris advising Kraft to start rethinking its dependence on the heavy loads of salt, sugar, fat. And what ensued is just an even more amazing story of what happened at Kraft.
REHMYou know, it's interesting, Michael, because in your book, you talk about how the industry, the food industry can alter shapes, physical shapes, of ingredients like fat and salt so that they actually tastes better on the tongue. Explain that.
MOSSI used to think salt was a, you know, hunk of rock.
MOSSPulled out of the ground and you sprinkle it on your food. But they have dozens of types of shapes of salt perfectly processed, if you will. Shape manipulated to match whatever product it's being for. So you have powdered salt. You have chunk salt. My favorite of all that I use at home is the kosher salt, which looks like snow but it's shaped like a pyramid. The sides are flat so it adheres to food better.
MOSSBut here's the real secret to it which provides the flavor burst that companies like to talk about. It's hollowed out on the inside, so your saliva has much more contact with it and it dissolves three times faster than ordinary salt.
REHMSo then you want more? Do you want...
REHMDo you then want more?
MOSSYou know, you get that -- you know the point, maybe not more salt but one of the things that you have to realize is that you can't look at salt in isolation. It makes you want more of the food that you're eating.
REHMMichael Moss, he's an investigative reporter with the New York Times. His new book is "Salt, Sugar, Fat: How The Food Giants Hooked Us." Short break, right back.
REHMAnd welcome back. As we talk about the processing of foods a great many people, Michael Moss, are asking about MSG and why monosodium glutamate and why that has not been mentioned yet on this program. Talk about what it does, what it is and how it may affect our brains.
MOSSMSG came up in my reporting in a very limited way. And that is in the context of salt isn't the only thing being added to processed foods that presents a problem to people trying to limit their sodium intake. If you look at the ingredient labels on foods, as Melanie as done so carefully, you'll see any number of sodium compounds in there that have all kinds of functions as preservatives, as emulsions -- emulsifiers of this and that -- and MSG, sort of, sits in that category of having functions beyond just this case. And I think some of your other panelists can help more on that.
WARNERYeah, MSG is one of these ingredients in food that we really have no idea where it is, where it comes from. It's basically glutamate is an amino acid. And they get it by cleaving apart protein molecules. Usually they get it from corn or soy. And glutamate is something that is -- it's one of our fifth -- it goes right to one of our fifth senses for tasting food. So for some people it makes food very appealing. Some people think they have a sensitivity to it. The food industry always says, no, no, we've -- there's no studies that show that. I think that when you look at the research on MSG there hasn't been enough work done to really identify possible problems with it.
REHMAnd here's an email from Gary which goes to the point about so called healthy foods still being processed. "Where is the line drawn for considering processed food? The bread I have now and often buy is Arnold Healthy Multi Grain because of the whole grains and fiber content. But the sodium content is six percent per slice." Melanie.
WARNERYeah, sodium is -- can be abundant in bread. And I think I would urge -- I would urge the listener maybe to look at the ingredient list a little bit closer and see if it's actually a hundred percent whole wheat bread. A lot of multi-grain breads actually are made predominantly with white flour. Sounds good, multi grain, but unless it says a hundred percent whole wheat it's not whole grain.
WARNERAnd there might other things on the ingredient label that are strange, such as dough conditioners and things that you can't pronounce like azodicarbonamide to which there have been some studies done that raise concerns and problems. And I would argue if it has those ingredients then it's definitely goes into the category of a highly processed food.
REHMAll right. Let's go to Fort Myers, Fla. good morning, Bill, you're on the air.
BILLGood morning. I'm a food addict so I want to let you know that there are people who are consuming these things who are eating them for the wrong reasons.
REHMEating foods like what for the wrong reasons?
BILLSugar -- especially stuff with sugar in it. Sugar has the same effect on the brain as alcohol does. And for those of us who are addicted this -- this food just becomes a dangerous thing for us.
REHMIs that part of your argument, Michael Moss?
MOSSWell, look, Diane, I have two boys eight and 13. If you want to see sugar attractions just look at these guys when they, like, roll out of bed in the morning. They're looking for breakfast. And my wife, Eve, and I have, sort of, come up with a strategy because, again, I am not anti-processed foods. Well, our family depends on them like most Americans to some extent, but it's the amount and it's the gaining control over processed foods that I think is important.
MOSSSo Eve arbitrarily came up with a five gram sugar per serving limit. And the boys get totally into that. So when I take them to the grocery store we get in the cereal aisle they start hunting for those cereals that have that amount of sugar or less. And they're there. They just -- they may have to reach low or reach high to find the favorites, but they're there.
REHMWhat about yogurt? Tell me about yogurt, Melanie.
WARNERWell, there is yogurt and there's yogurt, right? So yogurt that is minimal processed, your tub of yogurt that doesn't have a thousand ingredients in them is a very healthy food, right? It's a dairy. It gives you protein. It has beneficial bacteria in it. But you can also look at some varieties of yogurt that have all kinds of different things in it like food coloring and food starch. And those, I would argue, probably not the most unhealthy thing at the grocery store, but there are better choices.
REHMWell, what about plain Greek yogurt that has very little sugar, that's been pressed so the liquid is out of it. So, for example, Whole Foods sells 365 yogurt, plain, 18 grams of protein, two grams of sugar, which would certainly satisfy you and your wife, Michael Moss. What about that?
WARNERVery healthy, I think. I love yogurt. I eat it probably three to four times a week. The Greek yogurt -- I like the regular yogurt better than the Greek yogurt, but a lot of people love the Greek yogurt. And, you're right, it is higher in protein, but you have to look at the labels, again, as you always do.
WARNER...As you always do at the supermarket because some of the Greek yogurts are not traditional Greek yogurts. They're not actually strained. They put in additives like food starches and protein ingredients.
REHMBut don't they have to label those?
WARNERThey do have to label that.
WARNERSo that's why if you look at the label, you're all set.
REHMLet's go to Bill in Lancaster, Pa. you're on the air.
BILLHi, I really love your show.
BILLYeah, I'm not so much worried about the solid foods, the fat and sugar, salt and stuff that they put in food because that's food. You know, I mean, I make cookies with that kind of thing. I'm worried about the hidden ingredients that you don't know about that are in seemingly whole foods like chicken breasts, for example. It says natural organic chicken breasts, you know, but they'll pump it up with milk fat solids and water and soy-based chicken so-called natural chicken flavors.
REHMAll right, what about that Michael?
MOSSWell, you know, that's exactly what I was looking up before I focused on the salt, sugar, fat as the pillars -- the brining of meat is of, actually, significant concern to people and will add significant loads of sodium. So I think it comes back to this question or this matter of foods that seemingly seem unprocessed are not necessarily so. And consumer advocates have been fighting for more disclosure on packages, about that very issue of plumping, they call it, with chickens.
REHMWhat about that, Justin?
WILSONIn a lot of the things we've discussed we should step back and take an understanding about why food companies add things to the products that we don't necessarily expect to be in there. They, in large part, nowadays are spending time adding things to increase the healthfulness of the food. When we talk about salt, for instance, there's a salt that was invented by Cargill -- processed, you know, it does not come out of the ground, that delivers the same saltiness to a product, but with 40 percent amount of the sodium.
WILSONThat's something that we should be applauding. It gives us food that still tastes good. It gives you a potato chip that someone might eat, but that still provides that taste and reduces our sodium. The other reason they add things to food, though, is for convenience and cost. We lose track of the fact that not everyone can go every day to a farmer's market to pick up their vegetables, to the butcher and to a baker.
WILSONAnd, for instance, when we talk about bread, there's a lot of families who say I want to be able to buy bread on a Monday and know that it's not going to be stale on Wednesday. So they have to add ingredients that allow that. But, of course, if you buy a six-dollar boule from Whole Foods you'll find that you can't make a sandwich with on Wednesday and be satisfied with it. And these are important things.
REHMUnless you put it in the refrigerator and then toast it. Go ahead Michael.
WARNERPut it in the freezer.
MOSSI was just going to point out and, yes, there's no question that our growing dependence on convenience has played into the growth of processed foods over the years.
MOSSBut I'm glad you mentioned salt...
MOSS...Because a really fascinating thing's been happening in Great Britain where they have a sodium reduction initiative to the extent where Londoners now who travel overseas complain that the food is too salty. But what's happened is that even though while they're reducing their intake of sodium and, thus, problems with high blood pressure, obesity is continuing to rise in England.
MOSSAnd people who are looking at that realize, oops, what's happening is that while the taste for salt is going lower, people are still craving enough to still cause cravings for the fatty and sugary foods that provide the calories. So this is something we've seen over the years where the food -- processed food industry will play with one of the three ingredients -- salt, sugar, fat -- lower it and then either not pay attention to the other two or even raise the other two to account and keep their foods attractive.
REHMAll right, here's an email from Ann who says, "You talk about the giants of the junk food industry. I'm just curious how the giants of the diet food industry fit in. Obviously Lean Cuisine and the like are not necessarily health food, but are their products any better for us than other processed food?" Melanie.
WARNERWell, I think you have to look at those products and ask yourself is this a real food. What is really in here? Can I trace it back to a farm with any reasonable degree of certainty? And just because it has added vitamins in it -- Justin brought vitamins earlier -- I don't think we can just take a vitamin pill or a shake, a diet shake, with vitamins in it and expect everything to be fine.
REHMWhat about those diet foods, Michael?
MOSSWell, one caution with diet soda is that the science is actually still out on whether you can lose weight with -- by drinking diet soda. And the problem is you have to look at it in a context of your entire diet. If you're drinking a diet soda and then eating a muffin you're going to lose all of the gain that you had in drinking that diet soda. The other really intriguing thing about liquids is that it seems that our brain is less able to detect calories in liquids than it is in food.
MOSSAnd for that reason a senior scientist -- former senior scientist -- at Kraft told me that when he blew out his knee and couldn't jog anymore the first thing he did was cut all calories out of everything that he drank and he stuck with water as a means of controlling his weight when he couldn't exercise much.
WILSONYou know, the thing that I think we're losing sight of here is this notion that the food industry is trying to somehow increase the quantity of these products that are unhealthy. When, in fact, it's the food industry that has created diet meals. And while, on one side, we have the interest in trying to reduce obesity and, on the other hand, we have an interest in trying to reduce the amount of processing in our food.
WILSONWe cannot have both at the same time for someone who's busy. For someone who has other priorities in their life. If it's a family with two people who work, who have children that have to go to after school activities they might say that the convenience and cost of, perhaps, occasionally buying food out or buying a prepared meal that is healthy, is more important than the potential that one of them would not be able to work or, alternatively, couldn't bring their kids anywhere.
REHMBut the concern is growing obesity. The concern is what's in those foods that may, as Michael is posing, may make us want to eat more of that food rather than simply eat a healthy portion. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Michael.
MOSSJustin makes a really good point that I hear from the food giants all the time.
MOSSWhich is we provide what people want. You want a low fat food we got it for you. You want a low calorie food -- they love that because those are called lying extensions and they don't detract from the sales of their mainline products. And I think the debate you want to have, Justin, is with food policy people like Mary Anesell (sp?) over this question to what extent are these companies now accountable to the entire situation of the obesity and the other health problems. That's where it's going to get really interesting. I'd love to see you have that -- that discussion.
REHMMichael, do you think there ought to be some regulation of the amount of fat, salt and sugar within processed foods?
MOSSI come back to the former CO, Phillip Morris, who said to me, Michael, I am not fan of government regulation. But the situation here with the food companies is that you cannot expect them to act on their own to do something. And you've seen in the past they've tried to collectively get together, which was happening in the 1999 meeting I was writing about -- I wrote about in the book. And they're not doing that either because in this situation I could see an argument being made that this could be a situation where you need government intervention if -- and here's the reason that he argues.
MOSSIf nothing else then to provide the companies cover from Wall Street. The pressure is so intense on these food companies to keep their profits that when one of them unilaterally tries to do the right thing by consumers and increase the health of their products, boom, the analysts are on the phone the next day looking at the slightest decrease in sales (unintelligible) .
REHMGive me an example of where that happened.
MOSSCampbell Soup, fabulous company, over the years has really tried to lessen its own dependence on salt in its foods, cut back on sodium in one line of its healthier soups and had to add the salt back in just under a scowl from Wall Street that it was going in the wrong direction for their liking.
REHMInteresting. What about Mrs. Obama and her efforts, Melanie? How do you think they enter this picture?
WARNERI think she's done some wonderful things. She's raised -- certainly raised the issue of childhood obesity to the point where no one can ignore it anymore and pretend that it's not a problem. And she's done wonderful things with increasing access to healthy foods in what are known as food deserts where people don't have proper supermarkets. So I think she's done some absolutely wonderful things. Yeah.
MOSSOh total hats off to her. I mean she has put food back in the public conversation in a really meaningful way. And I happen to know that people in the White House are now really itching to go beyond what they've managed to do. I think they're looking at reinvigorating the home economics programs so our kids once again learn about food and nutrition while they're still at school and before they start making decisions on their own. I think they're also looking at ways to level the playing field when it comes to pricing because it is true that fresh fruits and vegetables are still more expensive than the cheaper processed foods.
REHMMichael Moss, he's an investigative reporter with The New York Times. His book is titled, "Salt, Sugar, Fat : How the Food Giants Hooked Us." Melanie Warner is author of "Pandora's Lunchbox: How Processed Food Changed the American Meal" and Justin Wilson, senior research analyst at the Center for Consumer Freedom. Thank you all so much.
WARNERThank you very much.
MOSSOh, thank you. Melanie and Justin, nice to talk to you.
WILSONIt's been a pleasure.
REHMAnd thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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