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Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us Paperback – February 18, 2014
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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.
The U.S. has the highest rate of obesity in the world, much of it due to the abundance of cheap, calorie-rich, processed food. Food companies manipulate our biological desires to scientifically engineer foods that induce cravings to overeat, using terms like mouth feel for fats and bliss point for sugars to tinker with formulations that will trigger the optimum food high. Coke even refers to their best customers as heavy users. Moss portrays how the industry discovered the allure of added sugar in the 1900s, and has been jacking up the levels ever since, without regard for consumer health, in everything from soda to breakfast cereals to instant pudding, in a race for market share. The food industry is not about to change, but this book is a wake-up call to the issues and tactics at play and to the fact that we are not helpless in facing them down. Moss is an investigative reporter with the New York Times; he won a Pulitzer Prize in 2010 for his investigation of the dangers of contaminated meat. --David Siegfried --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Top customer reviews
I have become concerned with my health over the past 5 years, since I got married, and my overall diet went from lentils and brown rice day in, day out, to cardboard boxes, plastic packaging, fast food, restaurants, take out, microwaves, lunch meats, cheese galore, cookies, candy bars, etc. etc. After being in and out of over 7 different specialists' offices and surgical suites in the years since this S.A.D. under-haul with various severe ailments from gastrointestinal to gynecological, I have began taking back control of my health. This book has been somewhat of a nail in the coffin in those regards.
Basically, I learned to stop feeding myself lies. After reading this book, I can see blatant lies and misleading claims all throughout the grocery store. Meaning advertising on signs and boxes - all bright and colorful to lure you and your children with willynilly health claims based on a minute shred of evidence from a biased Nabisco or General Mills 'investigation.' etc. "Contains real fruit juice" means nothing. "100% natural" is meaningless and any person can put that on ANY product whether it's true or not. Stop giving your kids Capri Sun and sweetened 'fruit juices.' You owe it to them to educate yourself so they have a shot at a long and healthy life without being shot in the foot by their parents during their formative years. Really. Take some responsibility. Don't even get me started on Lunchables! One of the downfalls of our modern day society. "It's like I'm sending my kid to school with a present so he knows I love him! Tee Hee!" Yeah, well enjoy your child having plaque in his arteries by age ten. I digress.
Keep this in mind the next time you go shopping: Lead paint tastes sweet, but that doesn't mean you should eat it!!
I bet a lot of people would be surprised to know that Betty Crocker is a figment of an ad execs imagination. Not real, not in the least. Don't fall for her lies about Crisco and making life easier by NOT cooking dinner and having more TV time in the evenings. This is how we went off the rails, and the U.S. government was a huge promoter of that. Nearly everyone knows the U.S. is in cahoots with the sugar industry, the beef industry, the dairy industry, and so on and so forth. Essentially, anything that is bad or unnecessary for us is shoved in our faces by the DOA (Eat more beef and cheese!), by the huge conglomerates themselves, and, as another surprising example, by Philip Morris; a tobacco company who actually owns several of the biggest "food" production companies around.
Quick - what's the overall biggest contributor of saturated fat in the American diet? Cheese! And then Beef! Whoo hoo! Oh, er...wait....heart disease is our nation's #1 killer.... and the government wants us to eat more.. cheese? Oy.
Anyway - Great book. I highly recommend to anyone without a clue. It might clear some things up. I apologize for being snarky. It's just that.. you know. Insurance rates. Crowded hospitals. Less room in your airplane seat when sitting next to someone due to size. Others' actions impact everyone else and no one considers their fellow-person anymore. Sigh.
I'd hazard a guess that no one, after finishing this book, will ever look at a package of Oreos, a bag of potato chips or roam the aisles of a grocery store without a keener sense of the larger forces at work in the global food industrial complex. Of course, there has been a growing awareness and recognition of the inherent problems with this type of food so the use of these ingredients is unlikely to be a surprise to anyone who has ever looked at a label on a box or package of food. Moss did extensive research for this book, accessing tons of public records and information as well as speaking to ex-executives of food companies, food scientists and a range of other individuals and organizations connected to the processed food "industrial complex". What emerges it a fascinating picture of the holy trinity: salt, sugar and fat. These are the ingredients are government subsidizes (at the expense of fresh fruit and vegetables) to ensure near limitless supplies at unbelievably low costs that enable items that would otherwise be inedible to keep one coming back for more. Scientists and researchers find the absolute precise amounts of these items needed to reach a "bliss point" or some other academic sounding term which is essentially a means to create an addiction to these ingredients and their tastes.
There certainly aren't a tremendous amount of easy solutions to the problems and challenges that Moss covers in this book. From the government policies favoring industry giants like Cargill and their massive production and distribution of commodities like corn, salt and sugar to the nature of public companies how they are beholden to Wall Street's quarterly earnings and the inexpensive prices of these manufactured foods relative to fresh, natural ingredients (and their proliferation in more socio-economically depressed areas) where those with less means face a decision getting some calories on the table for their family.
"Salt, Sugar, Fat" is a book broad in scope, an examination of the consequences of convenience in a modern society and the massive impact on the food being produced for us to eat, what we choose to eat, the incentives our governments provide to certain producers (and those they don't provide to others) and the tremendous impact it is having on us all, virtually none of it beneficial. There are certainly things that each of us can do individually to swim against this tide, but it is a bit daunting to read this book and not feel a bit powerless about our current situation and the path forward.