Salt Sugar FatBy Michael Moss
Michael Moss, the Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist who brought “Pink Slime,” the beef by-product, to light in 2009 (which might still be in your store- or restaurant-bought ground beef, by the way), brings us this book, which tackles the way the food industry works to get us hooked on three very powerful components that form the backbone of the processed-food industry: Salt, sugar, and fat.
This book was absolutely fascinating. It is broken up into three parts (you guessed it: sugar, fat, and finally salt) and Moss presents case studies from different companies using products we all know and love. And those companies (Kraft, Dr. Pepper, Frito-Lay, Oreo, Campbell’s and more) know just how much we love these products. And they know what three ingredients make us love them so much that processed food is a multibillion-dollar business enveloping the whole world.
And it’s not just the private companies. The government plays a huge role. Did you know that the USDA actually advertises for the dairy and beef companies? The Farm Bill requires (stupidly, in my opinion) for the government to buy any unsold beef products. So in order to buy less themselves, they advertise to make us buy more (To be fair, the money comes from the dairy and beef companies, not taxpayer dollars. But the USDA manages all the advertising for them). Since this program went into effect in 1985, the USDA has spent $2 billion advertising beef to Americans.
And cheese: ever since people became terrified of whole milk (which is only about 3.5 percent fat, something many people don’t realize) and switched to skim, there were tons of milk fat sitting around. And it was going for cheap. So what did the food industry start doing? First they developed a manufacturing technique (using chemicals, of course) that could significantly cut the time it took to make cheese, compared to the traditional methods. And then they put it into everything, of course! And I mean everything. Four-cheese frozen pizzas with a cheese-filled crust. An explosion of new cheeses in the deli section. Crackers bursting with cheese. Dozens of new flavors of chips. Even chocolate cream cheese. You know, for dessert. Or breakfast. Whatever. Cheese became an ingredient rather than a special topping or a rich appetizer to be savored.
The thing about processed food is, very rarely is an item created because customers are clamoring for Spicy Six-Cheese Cheetos. Most of us were perfectly content with crunchy or puffy before all these other varieties came along. Same goes for crackers, cookies, ice creams, yogurts. These food giants create things because they want to sell more, want to make more money, and want to make their investors on Wall Street happy. Most of them don’t give a damn that we are getting fatter and sicker. They defend themselves by saying, “well, no one is holding a gun to anyone’s head and shoving Triple Double Oreos down their throats.”
And they argue this any time the FDA tries to set limits on how much salt, sugar, and fat we consume. Or they buy out scientists or doctors who will say that their products aren’t harming us and the government is just trying to push the nanny state on us, the gall!
But these companies know that salt, sugar, and fat make these foods irresistible to us. And that we will sit down with a bag of chips and eat not one, but four servings at a time. And that we will buy time and time again. All this is because of the way our brains react to fat, salt, and sugar. Moss visits research facilities where they test new products, such as one where they are trying to reach the “bliss point” for a new flavor of soda – the point where there’s just enough sugar: any less or more and we wouldn’t drink enough. Or showing that there is seemingly no limit to the amount of fat that tells our brain, “enough already.”
The book discusses the guerilla tactics used by these companies, which use many of the same marketing ploys as the tobacco companies. Just as the tobacco companies marketed slim or filtered cigarettes to women, Big Food advertises with cartoon characters to children, or tells harried moms they are making a smart choice when they pick a “fortified” cereal, nevermind that it is 50 percent or more sugar.
Moss speaks with several reformed executives and food scientists who realized the plight their products were causing and tried to get their companies to voluntarily reform. As you can guess, many were relegated to lower positions or fired. But the bottom line always is, the only thing that matters is the bottom line.
A section of this book is dedicated to Lunchables, that little compartmentalized tray of fatty, salty goodness that kids seem to love oh so much. I was one of those kids. I remember begging my mom to buy them for me, especially the pizza ones. I distinctly remember the “crusts” tasting like cardboard and the sauce being super-sweet. But it didn’t matter, because I could “make” my own lunch – which is exactly what the advertising wanted us kids to think. I also remember occasionally getting the ones with a Capri Sun and a fun-sized Snickers, loaded with several teaspoons worth of sugar on top of all the fat and salt in the rest of the package.
This product was not invented because moms were asking for it. It came about because Oscar Mayer had so much extra bologna it didn’t know what to do with, ever since America started shunning saturated fats in the early ’80s. I am certain my mom had no idea how much sugar, salt, and fat this seemingly innocuous lunch contained. I am also certain if she were aware, she would’ve steadfastly refused to buy them for me (I’m pretty sure she eventually figured it out, because I don’t remember my younger sister ever getting them, despite their ubiquity in the grocery store to this day).
I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in the way Big Food operates. It is a fascinating look into just how we got so hooked on junk food from a psychobiological perspective as well as how the companies lure us in, and keep us coming back. But you can break this cycle. You can stop buying all the unnecessary chips, cookies, candies, and cakes making us so unhealthy and quite honestly, don’t always taste that great. You can vote with your dollars. You can choose to eat and make real food.