As someone who can’t eat dairy—one test, years ago indicated I wasn’t lactose intolerant and not allergic to milk, yet my body can tolerate only a token amount before I have to race to the bathroom—I actually get angry when I go out to eat.
My wife and I scrounge up the cash, choose a restaurant and feed the kids, only to end up challenged by a menu on which most items have cheese or dairy as a key ingredient. “Why do they have to bury everything under cheese?” I whine to my long-suffering wife. She’s sympathetic, but she’s also heard it all before: “Why do people need cheese stuffed into their pizza crust?” I shout at the television. “Can the average Pizza Hut customer discern the delicate interplay of the five carefully selected cheeses on their revolting-looking Five-Cheese Pizza?” I ask in response to a radio commercial. “The Pioneer Woman put an entire brick of cream cheese into her freaking mashed potatoes!” I tell my children at the dinner table to let them know the horrors that face them when they leave the loving bosom of home.
These things brought me to “Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us” by Michael Moss. My wife read it a few years ago and has looked askance at my Frito-loving ways ever since. But I’m trying to lose some weight (thanks a lot, doctor) and I thought it might help me reframe my relationship with all things salty and fatty.
Moss, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting that exposed horrifying food-processing practices, exhaustively researched this fascinating, scary and shocking book that is bound to make you rethink what you eat. If you’re not ready to do that, read another book.
Moss takes a hard look at processed food. That’s the stuff that fills every aisle of the grocery store. The real food, as Michael Pollan says in his fantastic book “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto” is, for the most part, along the walls of the grocery store in the produce, meat and dairy cases. Everything else has been processed to within an inch of its life and is designed in a diabolical way to make you crave it.
That’s not overstating the case, either.
Most of the foods you’ll find in the grocery store, from breakfast cereal to the bread and lunchmeat you use to make your sandwich for lunch to the jarred pasta sauce you use at dinner because it saves time to the potato chips you shove down your gullet while watching TV at night is created not by taste, per se, but by data. MRIs of eaters’ brains as they eat sweet (or salty) things are studied by food scientists until they find the maximum sugar content before the brain scans tell them it has become too sweet (or salty). That point is called the “bliss point” and having it activated in your brain makes you crave that food. That, of course, makes you want to buy more and eat more which means bigger profits for giant food companies.
When it comes to fat, there doesn’t seem to be a specific bliss point, but its use in food is not just for flavor, it also factors into that elusive “mouth feel” in which eaters find comfort. The interplay among the three titular characters in the book is fascinating. If you want to fool consumers that something with “50% less fat” is healthy, manufacturers need to increase the sugar to compensate for the altered formula. And vice versa. So even smart people who read labels think they’re eating well. I knew that before reading the book, yet I was stunned to hear that a single serving of Yoplait fruit-on-the-bottom yogurt has more sugar than a bowl of Lucky Charms.
In trying to cover all aspects of the industry and how it is intentionally ruining the health of Americans young and old in pursuit of profits, Moss doesn’t paint anyone as a true villain. Food scientists in the ’50s and ’60s worked to develop these foods for harried housewives too busy to cook. (That these food companies weren’t responding to need, but actually creating this market is a sad and repellent fact.) They didn’t know, at first, what they were doing to Americans’ arteries and asses. Lunchables, one of the worst products on the market in terms of nutrition (not to mention where all those plastic trays go when they’re empty) was created, in part, to boost sales of lunchmeat and thereby save jobs. Later, though, profits were the only motive to keep producing and keep altering recipes based on data and brain scans.
Moss also relates attempts by companies, notably Kraft, to try to address the nation’s health issues they created, but it feels too-little, too-late.
This book is not easy to read because you can’t help but feel like a sucker for not being able to see through the marketing to realize what we eat often isn’t food. It’s eye-opening and frightening and should be mandatory reading for anyone who eats.