by Jenny Baker
Before we get to Michael Moss's excellent and readable book on the processed food industry, Salt Sugar Fat (Random House, 2013), I have a confession to make: I love potato chips. Not just any potato chips, but the "red hot" kind that, in their best incarnation, start your eyes watering, nose running, and mouth searing after the first handful. And eat them by the handful I do, until the whole bag is gone, no matter how much I tell myself I will not consume the entire 10 servings in one sitting. Reading about such gluttony, you might roll your eyes and think, "No wonder Americans are so fat... No self control." And you'd be right, in part... But readers of Salt Sugar Fat will learn that there is more to it than that. They will discover that the food industry has engineered every minute aspect of these chips, right down to pounds per square inch of crunch that is optimally desirable in every single bite, to make sure I can't eat just one... And I can't.
Food scientists, readers learn, are only part of the problem in our world of highly engineered food — and possibly a minor part. Moss also looks at how the endless savvy of industry marketers is a crucial element in promoting the terrible foods we find so irresistible. Finally, most importantly, he shows how the intense competition to capture consumers' dollars is the bottom line with "Big Food". As long as these companies make bank, with their dizzying array of processed products, they regard the health and nutrition aspects of their products as insignificant details — the companies are, after all, only giving us what we want. Salt Sugar Fat explains how creating such profitable foods cheaply and consistently involves relying on exactly the unhealthy substances we consumers love so much. Yes, of course: salt, sugar, and fat.
Moss looks at each of these substances in turn and focuses on one or two illustrative examples for each one. With sugar, the obvious culprit is soda but these days sugar has crept into everything (ever looked at the ingredients in a supermarket jar of tomato sauce?), because we love it intensely... although with limits. Moss writes about the sophisticated food industry research designed to plumb those limits, which has pinpointed the precise and optimal amount of sweetness in food that we will find irresistible at every age. This knowledge defines the food made available to us from childhood, in the sugary gauntlet of the cereal aisle, to adulthood, where soda makers such as Dr Pepper know with startling exactitude what the optimum crave-inducing sweetness, or bliss point, is.
As if the exploitation of our love for sugar wasn't bad enough, we learn from Moss that in some ways our love of fat is worse. While there is an upper limit for how sweet we want our foods to be, there is no such constraint with fat: our love for the substance is literally boundless. We just can't get enough of fat and its delightful mouthfeel and, according to our taste buds, there is no such thing as too much. The industry gladly obliges us in this predilection and gains additional benefit from the fact that fat extends the shelf life of processed foods while masking some of the less desirable tastes created through the miracles of modern food chemistry. As a result, there is more cheese, butter and dairy in everything we eat. Combine this prevalence with sugar, and you begin to see how an epidemic of obesity and diabetes takes shape.
The book goes on to show that the news for salt is slightly less dire, if only because it is possible to reverse our reliance on it: those who quit eating salt cold turkey for a period can effectively "reset" their taste buds. That is not as easy as it sounds, because salt, of course, is also added to everything in your grocery store. Prepared soups are swimming in the stuff, but anything in a can is likely to have some as a preservative to extend shelf life. Beyond salt's use as a preservative, food manufacturers love it because it adds flavor to mass-produced products that are otherwise bland and without interest. Combine that with the fact that salt is impossibly cheap and you begin to see why it is the industry's equivalent of a magic bullet. So you might wean yourself from salt but, given its multiple utilities, rest assured that the food industry won't be doing so anytime soon.
Moss goes into fascinating detail about all these aspects of processed food and he also gets incredible access to former and current executives in the industry. He even talks with the some of the foremost food science researchers in the world at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia (where your humble book reviewer once worked). This access, in combination with years of extensive and detailed research, makes Salt Sugar Fat the most thorough and informative book I have read on these topics. At the same time, Moss is a sufficiently good writer that you don't feel you're wading through an article from some arcane scientific journal. As with any good science writer, he can make technical topics comprehensible — and enjoyable — for a broad audience.
Finally, Salt Sugar Fat is remarkable for the refreshing lack of moralizing that many such books touching on the American diet and obesity epidemic tend to sink into. Moss remains objective, allowing his readers to supply the moral lessons about industry's reliance on the processed food trifecta of Salt, Sugar, and Fat.
Jenny Baker is a grad student in Urban Planning whose time is spent reading, writing, traveling and eating. She is also a regular supporter of Slow Food. You can read more of her writing at www.Urbinsider.com.