If you read just one book this year, it should be Salt Sugar Fat. And if you read only one book this year, you really should read a lot more. Part business book, part guide to healthy eating, Salt Sugar Fat (McClelland & Stewart) is an eye-opening, sometimes shocking, always fascinating book by Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Moss about the processed food industry and the damage it has wrought.
Of course, we all know that there is too much sugar, salt and fat in our diets, but just how much — and more importantly, how it got there and how hard it is to avoid — is revealed in this meticulously researched page-turner.
Moss has poured over thousands of pages of documents — some public, many confidential — and interviewed hundreds of food company executives past and present over three-and-a-half years to paint a picture of an industry whose goal has been to sell as much crap as possible to as many people as possible, without regard for the consequences.
But this is not an anti-big business screed. Moss just tells it like it is; the food industry is profit-driven, and the way they make their profits is by creating food we want, even crave. And boy, do they know how to do it. The processed food industry employs battalions of scientists, marketing experts, psychologists, and all manner of food alchemists to create foods that we might not have known we wanted, but now crave. For example, potato chip maker Frito-Lay has a facility that holds 500 chemists, psychologists and technicians that costs the company $30 million a year to operate, all to make chips even more alluring. (They even have a machine that replicates a human mouth so the company can determine how much pressure to apply to most comfortably snap a potato chip. It’s four pounds of pressure per square inch exactly, by the way.)
It’s no surprise that we crave salt, sugar and fat. Sugar, in particular, in insidiously delicious. The food industry has devised, through years of research, the exact amount of sugar that makes their sugary treats so irresistible; it’s called the bliss point, and it’s very carefully calculated. Fat is ubiquitous, and vital to making our food taste as delicious as it does. The most worrisome thing about fat is that, unlike sugar, there is no upper limit on it. While we can reject products with too much sugar, it appears there is no upper limit on fat. Our bodies can’t detect fat the way they do sugar and salt (Moss says “the brain sees fat as the body’s best friend”) so the food industry can just keep pumping fat into their products. The more, the tastier.
Americans eat 70 pounds of sugar a year (it’s everywhere; in Prego tomato sauces, the no. 2 ingredient is sugar) and 8,500 mg of salt (American food manufactures use 5 BILLION pounds of salt a year), double the recommended amount. (Salt, by the way, appears to be an acquired taste. While tests on babies show they immediately love sugar, they reject salt. It appears that children who grow up with the same salty foods their parents eat grow to love it, while children who grow up with a salt-reduced diet don’t develop a taste for it.) The results are horrifying, with obesity rates soaring, particularly amongst children.
Over 350 pages, Moss provides capsule histories of some of the most famous brands in the world, and investigates their corporate cultures. Coco-Cola, as you might expect, is absolutely ruthless in its desire to dominate not only the soft drink industry, but also the entire sphere of stuff that you drink. (Tellingly, a lot of the executives Moss spoke to don’t go near the stuff they produce, or in some cases, created.)
After reading Salt Sugar Fat, I felt like throwing in the towel in my admittedly half-assed efforts to eat healthy. After all, it’s just the lowly consumer against some of the biggest, most profitable, more brilliantly run companies in the world. How can I compete against that?
Moss doesn’t have a solution, other than being as vigilant as possible. Think of the grocery store as a battlefield, he concludes. If you know their tricks, if you know that they are reliant on salt, sugar and fat, and that can be empowering.
“They may have salt, sugar and fat on their side, but we, ultimately, have the power to make choices,” Moss concludes. “After all, we decide what we buy. We decide how much to eat.”
And you’ll be better prepared to navigate the battlefield of the supermarket if you read Salt Sugar Fat. It’s a must read if you eat food.