Published by Random House Trade Paperbacks
Publication date: February 18th 2014
My timing for this review may be a bit off as tomorrow is Thanksgiving, a day of food, but Salt Sugar Fat is not about home cooked meals. Instead, it is a depressing tour of tour of the multitude of ways in which the food industry has duped the American consumer for the last 60 years. Author Michael Moss interviews former food industry executives and studies masses of documentation to produce an indictment of food companies at the heart of the American table. At 480 pages this is one book that is going to kill your appetite.
Moss divides Salt Sugar Fat into chapters on each of those ingredients. Before he gets into the details, he presents overview statistics about Americans and food:
- America is most obese country in the world
- In 2 years, from 2006-2008, obesity in children jumped 5% to 20%
- 60% of supermarket purchases are unplanned
- Food manufacturing is a $1 trillion industry
Once he gets into the individual ingredients the horrors just keep coming. Some of them may be things you’ve heard, but others not so much. Specifically, the historical aspects of the food manufacturing industry, which really came into being after WWII, when “convenience” became a rallying cry and opened the door to allow companies to retool previously simple, healthy products into ‘foods’ that required no preparation, needed preservatives and additives to stay fresh longer, but would still satisfy.
Soon enough, in the race for ever-increasing shelf space and sales even items like plain yogurt were so jammed full of sugar that one serving of Yoplait contained twice as much sugar as a serving of Lucky Charms. Snack foods were born, each with an astounding load of sugar, salt and fat. Factoids like this, as they continue rolling past on the page, become almost mind-numbing, so I’ll save space and only share a few from the book here:
- We consume 71 pounds of sweeteners a year or 22 teaspoons per person a day
- Nestle owns Jenny Craig
- Food companies use 5 billion pounds of salt a year
- Americans eat 33 pounds of cheese and fake-cheese products a year
- Even 1.7oz a day any processed meat increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 21%
Whew. If that isn’t enough to make your head explode, consider this: In the 1980s as the dangers of tobacco were coming to be known, tobacco companies realized they needed to diversify their portfolios. What easier way to do this then buy lovable, all-American food companies? Soon Kraft and General Foods were owned by Phillip Morris and R.J. Reynolds bought Nabisco. The move becomes insidious when they used the same principles they’d employed to make tobacco products more addictive and applied them to food products. It worked so well that when lawmakers and the public responded with concerns and began pushing back they did the same thing they did with tobacco—head overseas. Which is why the almost-obsolete-in-America Tang is still a $500 million product thanks to China and Latin America. And Mexico is the second most obese country in the world.
This is not fun reading (I’m a Diet Coke fiend so trust me), but it is often fascinating. Moss interviews men like Al Clausi, who created Jello Instant Pudding, Alpha-Bits, and Tang, letting them explain their work and when/if they realized they were part of the problem. He looks at the corporate entities that have taken competition and revenue to new levels, using marketing and psychological techniques to push their products, even at the expense of their consumers’ health. He shares newfound research on human biology and the appetite, like the fact that our bodies are less able to register caloric “excessive intake” in liquids than in solids—making a Jumbo Coke feel less filling than a bag of Doritos even though its fat, sugar and salt content is similar. Or that babies love sugar from birth, but salt is an acquired taste, taking at least six months to appear. Lest you want to feel superior because you only indulge in one facet of the evil triad think about this
If sugar is the methamphetamine of processed foods, with its high-speed, blunt assault on our brains, then fat is the opiate, a smooth operator whose effects are less obvious but no less powerful.
There are parts of Salt Sugar Fat that may feel repetitive as Moss drives home a point, but the book does not read as biased. He is presenting extensively researched facts taken from real documentation. This may not be rapid reading, but I’d highly recommend it (unless you produce all your own food) as an educational tool. I learned so much and feel a lot less naïve about what I’m actually putting in my body when I eat processed food. At the very least, it will make your trip to the grocery store a different experience.