Michael Moss on Broccoli, Doritos

December 10, 2013
by Leslie Kelly

Michael Moss, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The New York Times and author of the best-selling Salt Sugar Fat: How Food Giants Hooked Us, recently penned a provocative piece challenging modern day Mad Men to give broccoli an extreme makeover, striving to give it the same kind of buzz enjoyed by super-trendy kale. Because Tuesday is Terra Madre Day - celebrating obscure, local foods in danger of disappearing - we asked Moss what he thought about extending those marketing principles to items on Slow Food's Ark of Taste.

Zagat: We loved the recent Broccoli story. What kind of feedback did you get?

Michael Moss: Madison Avenue seemed to get a kick out of it. The produce growers got excited. But the real test will come when someone - either the growers or a public health entity - puts up the $10 million or so needed to conduct a trial in some test markets. Only that will show if pitching healthy foods in the same cunning ways that junk food gets pitched will really cause people to buy and eat more.

Zagat: In light of Tuesday's Terra Madre Day, do you think the same marketing principles could be applied to the obscure foods on the Ark of Taste? In the interest of "eat it to save it"?

MM: I might be wrong, but I'm convinced that the geniuses in advertising agencies can sell anything to anybody. And I'm especially struck by their conviction that the last thing you want to do in this vein is preach, as in telling people they should do something for their health or the good of the planet. Maybe this comes from the fact that so much of what they sell is unhealthy and bad, so they have a natural aversion to touting goodness. But I don't think so. I think we're collectively a bit burnt out on being directed to the righteous path, and that this has a take a backseat to strategies that hit our more crass emotional buttons, which is what the advertising folks know best how to do. I also just love the idea of taking a page from the junk food industry's playbook and turning it to the advantage of people's health and well-being.

Zagat: If/when you get regular folks/readers asking what they can do to help create a better food system, what do you tell them?

MM: I only know what I've done in a household where my wife also works outside the home, and our kids are two walking bliss points for sugar. I've engaged our kids in a conversation about food, because otherwise they won't eat those carrots and apple slices that get packed into their lunches. I've developed new habits that will let me quickly find the better food in the grocery store (it's typically put in in least convenient places, like down near the floor), and then made time to do more cooking myself. The real inconvenience in this is upfront in developing these new habits. When this turns into routine, it's amazingly hardly less convenient than relying on highly processed foods. Oh, and It's getting those same two boys to help shop and cook.  

Zagat: When you dine out, do you decide where to go based on all you've learned through your reporting? In other words, do you tend to search out restaurants that have a mission to support best practices when it comes to sourcing local, organic, seasonal?

MM: It's evolving. I eat out rarely, so I used to have just a single objective: finding the utmost tasty, alluring, and satisfying food there is, which often meant lots of salt, sugar and fat, by the way. And I'd do so without guilt, knowing I'd return to my regular fare the next day. But now, yes, I've added local sourcing and seasonal to my criteria, especially when it comes to meat.

Zagat: What some of your favorite restaurants in NYC?

MM: Franny's on Flatbush in Brooklyn, because my boys are nuts are about pizza. Annisa in the West Village, because owner Anita Lo, like many women chefs, tries harder and like an Olympic athlete makes it seem so easy. The Red Hook Lobster Pound in Brooklyn, because they rebuilt after Hurricane Sandy and, well, because it's lobster.

Zagat: Care to share what you're working on these days?

MM: I'm at The New York Times looking for ways to write about processed food for all of the sections, from Dining to the Magazine to Sports. And if I'm lucky, I'll come across another book idea in same area of processed food. Your readers might like the short 2-minute videos I'm doing called What's In It. Here's one on the psycho-biology that goes into Doritos.