Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us
© 2013 Michael Moss
Between the fresh produce, meat, and dairy sections that ring the perimeter of the average supermarket, millions of unique foodstuffs are offered and advertised. But their apparent variety is a lie, for the bulk of these food products are nothing more than combinations of three additives: salt, sugar, and fat. In this book named after the unholy trinity, author Michael Moss offers a history of how these additives came to dominate so much of the American, and now global, diet, one which also examines the nutritional consequences of each. Its combination of dietary science, history, marketing, and politics signals out a few products in particular (Lunchables take a beating) and pose the question: if the creators of these products avoid eating them, why shouldn’t we?
I developed an avid interest in this topic after my doctor urged me to reduce my salt intake, a bit of advice that led to me avoiding supermarket interiors in general, preparing most of my meals from fresh produce and meat. Avoiding salt meant avoiding almost everything else, from obvious junk food like potato chips to ‘health’ food like cereal and canned vegetables. I started losing four pounds a week, eventually a little over 120 after four months. The lesson that processed foods are a health catastrophe, evidenced in the book, needs no further development for me, but Salt, Sugar, and Fat was doubly interesting for given so much attention to how these foods were marketed. Although companies like Coca-Cola whine about consumer choice when government entities attempt to regulate them with a view towards improving the public’s health, their self-serving defense of free choice is given the lie by their deliberate attempts to cultivate cravings for their specific products, both through advertising saturation and by adding ingredients which light up the pleasure centers of our brain and compel us to see more, even at our own demise. Can a nicotine addict really say his continuing purchase of cigarettes is one made freely? The 20th century has turned this trio of elements, each healthy in the right proportions, into narcotics. (Fittingly, many of the food companies featured in the book are owned by a tobacco company, Phillip Morris.)
But these companies — General Mills,, Kraft, Pepsi, and others — depend on these additives for more than enticing customers to come back again and again. They need food that can stay on the shelves for weeks and months, surviving trips across the globe on ship and truck, and taste and feel exactly the same way time after time. That means preservatives like salt and sugars, and it also means denaturing the foods so they don’t go and rot, and then applying more stable fat to make sure no taste is lost. Salt, sugar, and fat not only alter the taste of foods: they change their appearances and how they feel in our mouths. Moss is given the opportunity to try name-brand products offered without the additives, and never records a positive experience: one might as well be eating soggy cardboard for all the pleasures these ‘foods’ bring. In the light of such experiences, one can’t help but agree with Michael Pollan, who refuses to call things like Cheez-Its food, and who instead refers to them as edible, food-like products. If these items taste so abhorrent without the inclusion of ingredients harmful to our health in these amounts, why exactly are we eating them?
While the aggressive marketing of these goods and their physically addicting nature is largely to blame, it helps that they’re convenient and cheap, far cheaper than ‘real’ food. Although on the whole Salt, Sugar, and Fat is a robust book, it misses a step when Moss tries to work out the solution: he never mentions the subsidies that allow additives like high-fructose corn syrup (featured in the Sugar section) to be so cheap on the shelves to the consumer, and thus more enticing to parents with a tight budget than bunches of red-leaf lettuce and broccoli. Considering that Moss spends time demonstrating how parts of the national government are at odds with one another — one urging us to consume more of the same product to help “American farmers”, while another urges us to consume less for health reasons — it would have fitted in there nicely. Another answer to the mystery of our eating trash is the magic of branding: Naomi Klein’s excellent No Logo demonstrated how certain companies have gotten rich not by producing quality products, but by effectively mystifying people, by associating their products with good feelings, popularity, or wealth, and the importance of brand loyalty pops up several times through this text.
Salt, Sugar, and Fat makes a powerful case against processed foods, one which those with an interest in health (or marketing) will find fascinating.