I love food. I love books about food. And most of all, I love learning about the politics of food: how it’s produced, who it gets eaten by, the impact it has on culture and the environment, etc. It’s always been fascinating to me that almost every basic food item you have in your kitchen comes with its own rich history. In the context of the obesity epidemic that the media loves talking about and current events like the supersize soda ban in NYC, Michael Moss’s Salt Sugar Fat couldn’t have come along at a more appropriate time. His thesis is simple: the processed food empires, whose products are now deeply embedded in most people’s lives, were built on the three key ingredients of salt, sugar, and fat. Companies exploit these addictive ingredients and use them in dangerously excessive amounts at the expense of the public’s health, then use highly orchestrated marketing campaigns that have roots in the tobacco industry to keep customers hooked.
These are arguments that have existed for decades, but now Moss has the evidence to back it up. The book is filled with information culled from confidential documents, interviews with industry officials who have inside knowledge, activists, and scientists (who range from people examining the foods to the people who actually created them). Along the way, he shares the stories of how some of the processed food giants — and some of their most famous products — came to be.
He charts the rising rates of diabetes and obesity epidemic alongside the rise of the processed food industry by starting with sugar, focusing especially on soft drinks. The numbers are scary:
Health advocates don’t blame the single can of Coke with its roughly nine teaspoons of sugar. What made Coke evil — or, depending on who you are talking to, wildly successful — was the supersizing. As the obesity crisis was building in the 1980s, those cans gave way to 20-ounce bottles, with 15 teaspoons of sugar; liter bottles, with 26 teaspoons; and the 64-ounce Double Gulp sold by the 7-Eleven stores, with 44 teaspoons of sugar.
The story of “natural” fruit juice is no more comforting. Moss details some of the processes through which the juices can be created. Most of the “real” juices you find in grocery stores are made using juice concentrate, aka “stripped juice,”
…which is basically pure sugar, almost entirely devoid of the fiber, flavors, aromas, and or any of the other attributes we associate with real fruit. In other words, the concentrate is reduced to just another form of sugar, with no nutritional benefits over table sugar or high-fructose corn syrup….A company like General Foods can use this stuff and still put the comforting words contains real fruit on the box.
This “healthy” image can be misleading even to people who try to be vigilant about reading labels. Capri Sun came under fire in 2007 for putting “all natural” on their Wild Cherry labels, even though that juice contained 28% more sugar per ounce than Coke. Kraft made a few changes, but that’s just item in a grocery store filled with thousands of processed items; the average consumer doesn’t know what to look for, and companies take full advantage of this.
What’s worse is the way these companies pour millions of dollars into researching the effects of these ingredients on people. By 1999, they knew that they were creating a public health crisis that would be hard to undo. Instead? They pushed further, using scientific research to exploit the effects that salt, sugar, and fat have on people to gain more profit. One of the studies Moss includes reveals how, which mixed together, salt, sugar, and fat can affect people’s brains:
The tasters were able to taste and quantify the sugar content of each sample quite accurately, but not the fat content; the participants in his study found it difficult to detect its presence with any precision at all. On top of that, when sugar was added to the fattier formulations, the students mistakenly thought the fat had been reduced. In effect, the fat had gone into hiding. This meant the food manufacturers could use fat as an allure in their products without ever having to worry about a backlash from people’s brains, which they do with abandon.
One of my favorite chapters was the one that focused on my own personal kryptonite, cheese. The story of Kraft is fascinating, and the story of processed cheese even more so. It’s also terrifying, delivering massive amounts of sodium to the masses since it’s so hard to avoid: there’s a reason you’ll see cheese added to countless products, and can find cheese in slices, cubes, shreds, spreadables, and sprinkles at the grocery store. Americans now eat an average of 33 pounds of cheese each year, containing roughly 60,000 calories and 3,100 grams of saturated fat. It’s triple the amount Americans ate in the 1970s. And Moss writes, “America’s intake of cheese…continues to swell, increasing 3 pounds per person per year since 2001.” Since reading the book, I have seriously questioned myself each time I’ve reached for cheese and am making a conscious effort to cut back.
Salt Sugar Fat is an important, eye-opening book. Many of the people responsible for putting some of our culture’s most beloved junk foods into our hands — from the scientists who created them to the executives who pushed them into customers’ hands — won’t touch the stuff. That speaks volumes. So does the fact that these foods are mostly pushed on lower income communities of color (something Moss also explores). It’s one of my favorite nonfiction reads so far this year, and I highly recommend it to people who are interested in food history and food politics.
Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us was released in February 2013 by Random House.