As the father of two sons, 9 and 14, Michael Moss sees how the processed food industry uses direct hits of salt, sugar and fat to make its cheap, convenient products irresistible.
"Both boys are walking bliss points for sugar," said the investigative reporter, who joined The New York Times staff in 2000.
You might imagine that a reporter who devoted years to exposing how companies like Philip Morris, Nestle, Nabisco, Kraft, Cargill and Frito-Lay use science and marketing to target Americans' taste buds would try to prevent his children from consuming processed food.
"Not only are there Oreo cookies" at his Brooklyn, N.Y., home, the author said, "but they will initiate a sit-in if we so dare as to think about bringing Newman-O's" home.
The Newman-O's version of a chocolate, cream-filled wafer contains half the sugar and fat of an Oreo, he said, but they are "pathetic to my kids."
Mr. Moss, author of "Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us," speaks at 7:30 tonight in Oakland's Carnegie Music Hall. He opens the Ten Literary Evenings -- Monday Night Lecture Series presented by Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures.
In 2010, he won the Pulitzer Prize for articles about contaminated hamburger and the meat industry's use of lean, ammonia-processed beef called pink slime.
His exploration of America's food supply began with a story he reported in 2009 in southwest Georgia where an outbreak of salmonella in a decrepit peanut factory left eight people dead and sickened an estimated 19,000 people in 43 states.
He believes that educating his son by turning a trip to the supermarket into a treasure hunt for low-sugar cereals is a valuable exercise. The boys choose plain Cheerios, Special K and Total even though they prefer Fruit Loops.
"They will test the notion of just knowing what to do will help you solve your diet problems. They are fighting this huge biological craving in their body and their brain to eat sugar," he said.
Powerful forces are arrayed against the consumer because retailers and food manufacturers "are doing everything they can to steer you toward the center of the store where the less healthy stuff is. Knowing that the most sugary stuff is going to be at eye level enables me to better dodge that stuff. Knowing that the produce is at the end of the store helps me focus on spending more time there," Mr. Moss said.
He ignores all claims on the front of packages.
"Added calcium, more protein. All of the touting is on the front of the package to get you to lower your guard to pay less attention" to the nutritional value of what's in the package.
The explosive growth of convenient snack foods that can be eaten out of a bag with one hand forever altered Americans' eating habits.
"In the 1980s, almost overnight, it became socially acceptable to eat everywhere. People come into business meetings now with food," Mr. Moss said.
Supermarket chains are powerful, he said, because they control what is sold and how much space the manufacturers get.
"When Michelle Obama got Wal-Mart to dial back a bit on its salt, sugar and fat, where Wal-Mart drew the line was playing around with the position of those products. Right? That's where the money is made. When you step into the aisle, your attention is eye level."
The demand for healthier food is going to have to grow, Mr. Moss said.
The question is, "How do you grow that demand? We all know we should be eating twice as much fruits and vegetables as we are now."
One way to educate young people, he said, is to restart the home economics classes once taught in public schools. Home economics is still taught, he said, but, "They have shifted to teaching things like, 'How do you care for kids when you get pregnant at age 17?' There's much less cooking."
He believes that planting gardens on school property can be effective.
"That has a huge influence in helping kids to become more mindful of what they are eating. There is outrage that the multinational corporations should have so much control over our lives in the form of shaping what we eat and drink. Kids are really sensitive to that, especially inner city kids who are already sensitive to things like oppression and economic imbalance."
Education may also prevent a climb in the number of obese Americans.
"I would go after the youngest generation. Even they can influence their parents, and by and large it's going to be a lot easier to prevent being too heavy as opposed to dealing with it once you are," Mr. Moss said.
Marylynne Pitz: email@example.com or 412-263-1648. First Published September 23, 2013 4:00 AM