In Salt Sugar Fat, Michael Moss investigates the tactics employed by the processed food industry (Kraft, Pepsico, Nestle, Unilever and their ilk) to ensure that consumers buy increasing quantities of their products. His findings are horrifying but (mostly) unsurprising if you’ve been following the news about these issues. Processed foods contain ludicrous amounts of salt, sugar and fat, and have been thus engineered in order to promote overconsumption (via addiction). Consumption of these foods in anything other than modest quantities leads to all sorts of health issues. Corporations routinely lie about the health benefits of their foods, and have dodged almost every call for meaningful reform.
You say you know this already? Well, Moss, an investigative reporter for The New York Times, shows us just how deep the problem is. Even the most label-literate, vigilant consumer will be aghast at the industry practices he uncovers, and at the scientific evidence he unearths for the addictive nature of these foods. I thought of myself as a fairly careful consumer–I’m vegetarian, I believe that the nutritional value of a food is inversely proportional to the quantity of packaging, I don’t watch TV or read consumer magazines and haven’t seen any commercials for food products for about three years, and I don’t snack much (I’m not skinny because of my Churchillian aversion towards exercise). But after reading this book, I’ve come to understand how seemingly healthy processed foods– pasta sauce, yogurt, and fruit juice–harbor boatloads of additives. Did you know, for instance, that half cup of Prego Traditional pasta sauce has more sugar than 3 Oreo cookies? YUCK.
What’s most remarkable about the book isn’t the nutritional information (which is after all easily available, if not as easy to decode), but the fact that Moss gained access to records detailing the inner workings of these organizations. He begins by detailing a secret summit of the heads of the food corporations, where a plea to reduce the sugar, fat and salt in processed food was thrown out of the window. After all, consumers prefer the taste of saltier, sweeter, fattier foods to healthier alternatives. (Moss introduces us to the concept of the bliss point–the optimum combination of sugar, fat and salt that engenders a feeling of happiness while consuming the food; our bliss points keep shifting, and not in the right direction, as we consume more of these foods.) But consumers are increasingly concerned by the pitfalls of junk foods. The reconciliation of these opposing forces has been achieved, in essence, through misleading advertising. A product that calls itself healthy and low-fat, will in all probability feature sky-high levels of salt and sugar. A product which touts real fruit may have 2 teaspoons of juice per box of colored, sugared water. Buying orange juice with extra Vitamin C may actually imply that every other nutrient has long vanished from your glass.
The book is divided into three sections, each focusing respectively on salt, sugar, and fat (Moss doesn’t examine other dubious additives that these companies are so fond of). He does exactly as promised on the cover–investigating how the food giants hooked us on junk food via sugar, salt and fat–and no more, and if you’re looking for solutions to the issues raised, you’ll have to look elsewhere. I was also struck by Moss’s carefully non-judgemental tone which will appeal to a wide range of readers; your howl of outrage will find no echo here.
At times, the writing can feel repetitive, like a laundry list of examples of the food industry’s perfidy. The half cup of Prego sauce having more sugar than 3 cookies (pg 37) prompted a WTF, but by the time I read that a Hungry Man frozen turkey dinner has more salt than people should eat over the course of two days (pg 271), I was going well, yes. But my reaction could well flow from the fact that I didn’t need any convincing about the author’s thesis. If you are a defender of this industry’s practices, the examples keep adding up, and will give you much to ponder. As will the analogies and the relationship between the tobacco and the processed food industries.
It seems obvious that the situation is begging for intervention; waiting for this perfidious industry to self-regulate seems frankly ridiculous. What about the government? I’ve never bought the Nanny State argument–in fact, I’d dearly love a Mary Poppins to rap my knuckles each time I reach for a jar of pickles. (My weakness is salt, more than sugar or fat–I can eat a jar of mango chutney in one sitting). But even a believer in the right to free-willed obesity might find it unacceptable that so many of these foods are targeted at kids. (Brands who claim not to advertise directly to children often place their signage in places with high concentrations of little ones.) And it’s open season once the kids turn twelve. Twelve! When I was twelve, I thought Ayn Rand was the coolest person ever; so much for my judgement at this age.
But one of Moss’s most damning findings is the collusion between the corporations and the (US) government agencies (things seem better in Europe). It’s particularly disturbing considering that as ever, the neediest suffer the most–processed foods are ultra cheap and are often deliberately targeted at low-income consumers. Moss says his book is “a tool for defending ourselves when we walk through those [grocery store] doors.” But defense doesn’t seem quite enough in a situation where one in three adults is clinically obese, and where nearly one in four adolescents may have (or be on the verge of) type 2 diabetes. Let the hostilities begin!