Salt Sugar Fat

By Michael Moss

While writing this review I was interrupted by a telephone survey asking about my grocery shopping habits. Instead of hanging up I decided to indulge a whim and play along. Things went pretty quickly until the interviewer stumped me with a series of questions about my preferences among different organic and brand name “meal solutions.”

A meal solution? What did that mean? Were they referring to actual meals, or something in lieu of a meal? It seemed shifty in a way vaguely reminiscent of the designation of Cheez Whiz as “processed cheese food.” Not cheese, but . . . what exactly? These “meal solutions” appeared to occupy a similarly ill-defined middle ground. Did the term even refer to food?

As everyone is probably already well aware, most of the food we eat today is crap. A spate of books, films, news stories and television programs in recent years have drawn attention to the fact, and the link between our poor diet and rising rates of heart disease and obesity has become a political football.

In Salt Sugar Fat investigative reporter Michael Moss takes a look inside the food industry to see how this dysfunctional system works. Key to his analysis are the “three pillars” or unholy trinity of processed food: the salt, sugar and fat of the book’s title. The fact that processed foods are so prevalent is, in turn, a function of the industrialization of food and the modern consumer’s demand for food that is fast and convenient. Cooking and preparing meals has increasingly become either a specialized hobby or a draining, time-consuming and thankless chore to be avoided at all costs.

The main cost has been the quality of the food we find in our grocery stores. Salt, sugar, and fat are cheap additives, allow products to last longer on store shelves, and are popular with customers because they taste good. These factors all combine to make an essential point: the manufacturers of this stuff are feeding a very real demand for such products. Yes, food companies engage in false or misleading advertising, and yes they target kids, and no Wall Street really doesn’t care if you die eating it. But the bottom line is that junk food is an easy sell because we are hardwired to respond to it. Salt, sugar and fat are addictive substances, both for our physiological response to them and for their convenience, which is an understated addictive property in itself (it is, for example, a large part of why we spend so much leisure time watching TV).

If the use of the word “addiction” brings to mind the lawsuits against the tobacco companies of recent memory, that’s no coincidence. The people running the big American food companies also appreciate the similarities, and, in the case of Philip Morris (the giant tobacco company that owns both General Foods and Kraft), they are in fact the same people. They’ve been down this road before and aren’t looking for a replay. And so some of the strategies they employ, including paying their own experts to fuzzify the science and generally blaming the consumer, are familiar. As Moss’s reporting makes clear, however, they are well aware of the problem and in some cases even want to do something about it despite the fact that “it’s simply not in the nature of these companies to care about the consumer in an empathetic way.”

Still, the bind they are caught in is that they can’t make healthy menus that people will buy. As one of them succinctly puts it: “No sugar, no fat, no sales.” And the addiction goes both ways. As Moss reveals, the industry has effectively boxed itself in, as dependent on salt, sugar, and fat as any teenage junk-food junkie.

The closest analogy to the resulting situation is less to the tobacco industry than to our current addiction and dependence on oil. As one former Pillsbury executive puts it, “We’re hooked on inexpensive food, just like we’re hooked on cheap energy.” In both cases we’ve pursued comfort and convenience, mass production and mass consumption, to a point where we can no longer change because the whole economy has become dependent on cheap, dirty fuel (be it oil, coal, or processed food).

That’s not a happy outcome, and Moss doesn’t have any easy answers beyond better labeling and consumer education to get us out of the present mess. Though he doesn’t say much that is surprising or new – does anybody think ice cream, soda pop, potato chips and cookies are good for you? – this is still the sort of book that a lot of people should read. It may help you to change, and save, your life.

Review first published March 23, 2013.

%d bloggers like this: