Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Moss is the New York Times writer who injected the phrase “pink slime” into the public consciousness with his 2009 article on beef safety. In his new book, Salt Sugar Fat – How The Food Giants Hooked Us, he shows us how processed food company science and clever marketing have made it all but impossible to stop eating their “food-like” products.
I grew up in the 1970’s when processed foods were making their full frontal assault on America’s dinner table. I was no stranger to the occasional foil-wrapped TV dinner, fish sticks, Tater Tots, orange soda, cream soda, birch beer, root beer, bologna, Lucky Charms, Frosted Flakes, Tastykake, Ding Dongs, Tang, Jiffy Pop, salted pretzels, Sno Balls, Wonder Bread, Pixy Stix, Cheez Whiz, Fritos, Doritos, or Hershey bars. I poured whatever tasted good into my always hungry self. But like most kids at the time, I was very active, walking and biking everywhere before I could drive, spending lots of time outdoors (including gardening), and later, a runner and occasional gym rat. The calories that went in were burned pretty quickly.
But I also learned the value of a good meal prepared at home (thanks, mom!). While many of these dishes were blasts of fat and flavor like meatloaf, mashed potatoes, fried pork chops, homemade macaroni and cheese, or white rice loaded with butter, the fat and salt loads in these homemade dinners, while substantial, were miniscule compared to the modern, precooked versions which appear in boxes or bags in your local market. Food-related health problems it turns out didn’t spring from the salt shaker on your table, the sugar in your pantry or the butter in your fridge.
Michael Moss is one hell of an investigative reporter and Salt Sugar Fat is a great book, exposing the processed foods industry for the money printing business it is and always will be. Moss has sifted through millions of pages of public documents and interviewed major players in the processed foods industry who reveal why we can’t resist these products. Through interviews with researchers and food scientists we discover that our bodies react to these calorie and salt loads by making us feel good – our brains reward us for eating these foods. From the moment the food touches the tip of our tongue, travels through our mouth and into our digestive tract, hosts of nerve signals are informing the brain and the brain is expressing its pleasure. Scientists have even discovered the perfect point at which this happens, termed the “bliss point”.
Processed foods are a multi billion dollar industry, which as we learn has scientifically and intentionally fine tuned their products to such a degree that you literally can’t stop eating them. Some will say that food companies like General Mills, Kraft, Nestle, PepsiCo, Kellogg, Coca-Cola, and Tyson, are largely responsible for the obesity, diabetes and related health disorders America is burdened with. The counter argument is one of personal responsibility – you can decide to not buy their foods and instead eat brown rice, lots of vegetables, fresh fruits, handmade cheeses, artisan breads, and the like. But that’s assuming you’re aware of the health consequences of these ubiquitous food-like products.
The industry’s mantra is “convenience foods cheap”, a significant problem for those who are sucked in by clever marketing, those in poverty who have no access to and may not be able to afford fresh food, and children who can’t distinguish between the cartoon and the advertisement. The manufacturers of food products market them as a solution to a hectic lifestyle (Hungry-Man dinners), a fun breakfast food (Lucky Charms cereal), sugary beverages to be enjoyed during a memorable moment (Coca-Cola + baseball), or a quick pick-me-up to satisfy your hunger (Snickers bars). But these foods actually blast your body with much as three days worth of the recommended intake of salt, sugar or fat and hours later, leave you hungrier than before you ate them, due to the massive blood sugar spike they deliver. Marketing is frequently blamed for the success of these products, but as Moss reveals, even the most creative marketing doesn’t sell the product if consumers don’t find it irresistible.
One of the more interesting takeaways from Salt Sugar Fat is that none of the processed foods executives or food scientists Michael Moss interviewed, regularly eat the stuff their companies produce. None. Maybe the occasional bag of chips, but that’s about it. In fact, most appear very health conscious. These are highly educated people responsible for pumping vast amounts of diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease-producing snack cakes, sugary beverages, cookies, convenience foods, and salty snacks into the world food market without remorse. Some executives abandoned the industry, either in a sudden onset of conscience, or because they were forced out when they pushed for lighter loads of the Big 3 ingredients.
But the real irony here is that Swiss-owned Nestle not only keeps pumping the marketplace full of addictive, processed foods, but also provides the solution for their health consequences: Nestle owns Jenny Craig, the company that sells weight loss programs, as well as the pharmaceutical company Novartis, some of whose products treat the very diseases that the processed foods industry has contributed to.
Buy on Amazon: Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us