Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss
Every year, the average American eats 33 pounds of cheese (triple what we ate in 1970) and 70 pounds of sugar (about 22 teaspoons a day). We ingest 8,500 milligrams of salt a day, double the recommended amount, and almost none of that comes from the shakers on our table. It comes from processed food. It’s no wonder, then, that one in three adults, and one in five kids, is clinically obese. It’s no wonder that 26 million Americans have diabetes, the processed food industry in the U.S. accounts for $1 trillion a year in sales, and the total economic cost of this health crisis is approaching $300 billion a year.
In Salt Sugar Fat, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Michael Moss shows how we got here. Featuring examples from some of the most recognizable (and profitable) companies and brands of the last half century – including Kraft, Coca-Cola, Lunchables, Kellogg, Nestlé, Oreos, Cargill, Capri Sun, and many more – Moss’s explosive, empowering narrative is grounded in meticulous, often eye-opening research.
Moss takes us inside the labs where food scientists use cutting-edge technology to calculate the “bliss point” of sugary beverages or enhance the “mouthfeel” of fat by manipulating its chemical structure. He unearths marketing campaigns designed – in a technique adapted from tobacco companies – to redirect concerns about the health risks of their products: Dial back on one ingredient, pump up the other two, and tout the new line as “fat-free” or “low-salt”. He talks to concerned executives who confess that they could never produce truly healthy alternatives to their products even if serious regulation became a reality. Simply put: The industry itself would cease to exist without salt, sugar, and fat. Just as millions of “heavy users” – as the companies refer to their most ardent customers – are addicted to this seductive trio, so too are the companies that peddle them. You will never look at a nutrition label the same way again.
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Praise for Salt Sugar Fat
“[Michael] Moss has written a Fast Food Nation for the processed food industry. Burrowing deep inside the big food manufacturers, he discovered how junk food is formulated to make us eat more of it and, he argues persuasively, actually to addict us.”—Michael Pollan
“If you had any doubt as to the food industry’s complicity in our obesity epidemic, it will evaporate when you read this book.”—The Washington Post
“Vital reading for the discerning food consumer.”—The Wall Street Journal
“The chilling story of how the food giants have seduced everyone in this country . . . Michael Moss understands a vital and terrifying truth: that we are not just eating fast food when we succumb to the siren song of sugar, fat, and salt. We are fundamentally changing our lives—and the world around us.”—Alice Waters
“Propulsively written [and] persuasively argued . . . an exactingly researched, deeply reported work of advocacy journalism.”—The Boston Globe
“A remarkable accomplishment.”—The New York Times Book Review
Q&A with Michael Moss
Q. How did you land on salt, sugar, and fat as your way to write about the industry? Why these three ingredients?
A. I’d been investigating a surge in deadly outbreaks of E. coli in meat when an industry source, a microbiologist, suggested that if I wanted to see an even bigger public health hazard, I should look at what food companies were intentionally adding to their products, starting with salt. And sure enough, when I looked at this–by gaining access to high level industry officials and a trove of sensitive, internal records–a window opened on how aggressive the industry was wielding not only salt, but sugar and fat, too. These are the pillars of processed foods, the three ingredients without which there would be no processed foods. Salt, sugar and fat drive consumption by adding flavor and allure. But surprisingly, they also mask bitter flavors that develop in the manufacturing process. They enable these foods to sit in warehouses or on the grocery shelf for months. And, most critically to the industry’s financial success, they are very inexpensive.
Q. So, how big is the processed food industry, exactly? What kind of scale are we talking about here?
A. Huge. Grocery sales now top $1 trillion a year in the U.S., with more than 300 manufacturers employing 1.4 million workers, or 12 percent of all American manufacturing jobs. Global sales exceed $3 trillion. But the figure I find most revealing is 60,000: That’s the number of different products found on the shelves of our largest supermarkets.
Q. How did this get so big?
A. The food processing industry is more than a century old–if you count the invention of breakfast cereals–so it’s been steady growth. But things really took off in the 1950s with the promotion of convenience foods whose design and marketing was aimed at the increasing numbers of families with both parents working outside the home. The industry’s expansion, since then, has been entirely unrestrained. While food safety is heavily regulated, the government has been industry’s best friend and partner in encouraging Americans to become more dependent on processed foods.
Q. What three things should a health-conscious supermarket shopper keep in mind?
A. The most alluring products–those with the highest amounts of salt, sugar and fat–are strategically placed at eye-level on the grocery shelf. You typically have to stoop down to find, say, plain oatmeal. (Healthier products are generally up high or down low.) Companies also play the better-nutrition card by plastering their packaging with terms like “all natural,” “contains whole grains,” “contains real fruit juice,” and “lean,” which belie the true contents of the products. Reading labels is not easy. Only since the 1990s have the manufacturers even been required to reveal the true salt, sugar, fat and caloric loads of their products, which are itemized in a box called the “nutrient facts.” But one game that many companies still play is to divide these numbers in half, or even thirds, by reporting this critical information per serving–which are typically tiny portions. In particular, they do this for cookies and chips, knowing that most people can’t resist eating the entire three-serving bag. Check it out sometime. See how many “servings” that little bag of chips contains.
–This text refers to the Hardcover edition.