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Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us Hardcover – February 26, 2013
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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.
Top Customer Reviews
Note to folks thinking this is a diet or cooking type book: It's not. It is exactly what the subtitle suggests: "How the Food Giants Hooked Us." It's about how foods are made to take you to the sugar bliss point, to the higher fat realms of food pleasure, and so on. How we got these manufactured products Americans can't seem to stop guzzling and munching...and that have led to us being the fattest nation on the planet. Just know that. It might help you diet (opens your eyes to the scary "food" out there), but it's an investigative work within historical context. And it rocks.
Personal Preface 1: So, I've not requested a Vine book for review in, pshaw, a couple years. But I saw THIS one and had to have it. Yes, I got it free. No, I don't hand out five stars just for the heck of it. If I hated it, it would get 1 star.
Personal Preface 2: Food and health issues are key to me these days. I read labels, and I read science reports, and I read nutrition blogs, and I have found I need to eschew many packaged foods. To lose 115 lbs, I pretty much stopped eating out of cans/boxes/fast food places, period. I cooked simple foods the old-fashioned way, adding my own salt and fat and minimizing sugars. I chose dine-out carefully (since restaurants oversalt, oversweeten, and pretty much do on a smaller basis what Food Giants do, just with fresher ingredients mostly). THE END OF OVEREATING by Kessler was the single-most eye-opening book for me in my quest to heal my food issues in a society where we've gone pretty insane with what we do to food. That one also included some of the scientific and food corporations tactic info that Moss does in this.
The difference? Kessler is more clinical and dry. But he emphasizes how hyperpalatable foods (those with optimal mixes of salt/fat/sugar) make us overeat. Be we rats or humans, it sends signals to the brain's reward centers that can be hard to overcome.
~~~Now, SALT SUGAR FAT Review:
For a book containing a lot of business and science information, SALT SUGAR FAT is delightfully readable. The style is clean, smart, and has great narrative drive. Moss knows how to write. Here, he writes about how Food Giants maneuver around the boons and drawbacks of sugar, salt, and fat in order to make us want their products, and want them A LOT. Get a front seat ride to see how the tireless competition for our grocery dollars affects what's in the food you eat and how what's in the food products affects you and me, the consumers. Our health, waist size, time, perceptions, expectations, desires.
Convenience pops up a lot. Society's rapid changes--particularly women in the work force--have revolutionized how we use and view food/eating. Fast is good. Fast and easy is better. Fast and easty and tasty is best. Moss shows the industry responses and proaction, decade by decade, company by company, product by product, via uses of each of the focus ingredients: SALT SUGAR FAT. They learn how each drives us, and then use that to create dependencies. We get hooked on the fast, the easy, the sugary, the fatty, the salty.
Moss's access to key information sources is amazing. He conducted hundreds of interviews, but what really matters is that he interviewed people who themselves were players in the story: folks in high positions, with access to the developments/changes/decision-makers. Some WERE the decision makers. He's clearly had access to confidential documentation. He's also done his homework to get the pertinent and sometimes surprising background on his ingredients (salt, sugar, fat) and the motivations and the how-it-was-done. The why comes down to $$$, of course.
I am not surprised this guy has a Pulitzer Prize to his credit. His narrative of the history of our "Food Giants"--from the early starts of the cereal makers (and their own cereal wars) to the start of the cheese dynasty that is Kraft and others--hooks you. The number and scope of scientists and former executives is stunning--and necessary to obtain not just the outcomes (those foods, those marketing campaigns), but the process. It's really a page-turner.
While the book is SALT SUGAR FAT, the arrangement of the sections is actually SUGAR, FAT, SALT.
We start with the sweet. You're gonna learn about the bliss point and why cereals got to be up to 3/4 sugar. And you're gonna learn about some pretty deceptive practices to make moms/parents feel good about the mostly sugar water that gets targeted to kids. You're gonna learn some of the stuff you were taught about your taste buds is out of date. You're gonna get walked through the history--the creators, the competition, the labs and kitchens, the ad campaigns, the consumer reactions--so that it's like this dance that has some dire consequences for some and some mighty plump bottom lines for others. The soda industry information was super interesting to me, especially since I've given up soda except for an occasional Zevia or Coke Zero (the Coke I really wanted since I was 20 and out to lose some poundage, the one that actually kinda tasted like Coke).
You'll learn that we don't have a bliss point for fat, rather, we want more and like more. More and more. There's a reason for the explosion of cheese-accented or cheese-flavored or cheese-loaded products. The story behind that is weird and spellbinding. Maybe because my single fave protein source is cheese. :D I'm a bona fide cheesehead. Cutting back on that was the HARDEST. Harder than sugar. There are still some intriguing mysteries about fat for science to puzzle out, but what he presents is cool enough.
The segment on the creation and success of LUNCHABLES could have been so dull in another writer's hands, but Moss makes it practically enthralling. (Or maybe I just like these case histories.) Possibly because so much of this is about solving problems--raising the question then delineating the way to fail or succeed in making the product that serves consumer needs and feeds the bottom line.
What comes off as most disturbing is how powerful these corporations are, more than even I realized, and I read a lot. How they can fend off gov't control or squash activism. How they learn about our preferences and how they know and can use human psychological vulnerabilities. How infants and kids are especially vulnerable to the messages and products. What the young learn to like early--that affects tastes for life. The Food Giants also hire masters at manipulation, the ad folks, who can make a parent feel comfortable giving their kid a product that, if they whipped it up at home, ingredient by ingredient, would be tossed down the drain as nutrient-void swill by any responsible adult. It's scary and fascinating, both.
But awareness is the first step to making real changes. The public has to know so the public says "enough of that." This book is important as a building block of public awareness.
We hear it all the time from dietitians and nutritionists: We eat too little fresh produce. We consume too much sugar. Too much salt. Too much bad fats.
Food can be manipulated to be as addictive as narcotics. Fiddle with the sugar, fat, and salt content. Voila--"heavy users" are born.
Well, read this book and find out who controls what gets created for supermarkets. Learn some reasons why we're in a modern obesity epidemic. See how labeled ingredients can fool you.
Then go buy some produce and fresh protein sources and whole grains and eat real food you make in your own kitchen where YOU moderate the use of SALT SUGAR FAT. It's less convenient than a full meal heated up in 4 minutes, and it may make a kid light up less with glee to eat an orange than to drink a fake orange-flavored "fruit beverage," but it might save the next generation's health.
Read. Get scared. Take back control. :D
The author is the journalist who first cracked open the "pink slime" meat scandal and the depth of his investigative journalism is really impressive. It seems that he has spoken with scores of researchers, marketers and financial officers of the processed food companies in order to learn about things such as the invention of the Lunchable, as a way to sell more processed meats, and the growth of cheese from a food meant to be savored on its own into an ingredient that is shoved into a million different kinds of food.
I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in nutrition, or in the business of food. I would also recommend it to anyone who is looking for a push to close up the bag of chips or give up a soda habit.
The convenience of processed foods fits with our hurried society. It exacerbates the death of family meals, and encourages eating anywhere, anytime, and basically all day long. That by itself is enough to damn the industry, if traditional family values mean anything. Far more damaging than gay marriage, or abortion, or sexting, processed foods are destroying us, literally, physically. For hundreds of millions of Americans (and soon the world), this is normal. It is the way of life. There are no viable alternatives. This too, however, goes unexplored.
Moss divides the book into the three sections of its title. It contains the usual litany of incredible statistics - like how much of these ingredients the average American ingests annually, and how many billions of pounds the processors produce, but also some interesting developments on the way to perdition:
-Food processors call their customers users, like the drug addicts they want them to become.
-The "bliss point" is used by all of them to scientifically maximize the sugar effect along a bell curve. It allows food engineers to calculate how much sugar a child blisses out on compared to an adult, for example.
-Cereal makers spend twice as much on advertising as on ingredients.
-A child wanting cake for breakfast inspired Pop Tarts and its ilk. A whole new kind of meal evolved.
-Big Gulp, the 64 oz soda that New York's mayor is trying to ban, contains 41 teaspoons of sugar.
-Salt is a learned addiction. Newborns wince if you give them salt. But by six months they've accepted it, and for the rest of their lives they crave it. We start `em off young.
-Cheese used to be a food - an appetizer in the US, a dessert in Europe. Now it is an ingredient, and we put cheese in and on everything. We have tripled consumption to 33lb since the 70s.
-The cheese plague is the result of the Reagan administration's buying up and stockpiling excess cheese. The government bought it, marketed it, and provided it. Now it is normal to have cheese on everything, at every meal and snack. It's difficult to find any meal without it. "Healthy" salads come with cheese.
-Sugar is the methamphetamine of processed food ingredients; fat is the opiate. Perfectly legal drugs.
An interesting sidelight is Finland, where the government won. It mandated large bold labels "High In Salt", like cigarette warnings. The result has been an 80% reduction in heart attacks and strokes. In the US, the processors beat back the FDA and the USDA again and again.
The most disgusting food in the book comes from celebrity cook (and now diabetic patient) Paula Deen, who recommends taking a casserole of Kraft Mac & Cheese, scooping it into balls, wrapping the balls in bacon, and dropping them in the deep fryer. That's 0 for 4.
The book left two indelible impressions: the industry will do absolutely anything to beat back regulators. Health, untested chemical compounds, overeating, obesity - never even enter their equation, and the processors won't be told otherwise. Their freedom to poison Americans at will is all that matters. Now that Americans are nearing saturation, the processors are taking on the world. Obesity in Mexico is comparable to the US, and Brazil and India are being worked intensely.
Second was the overarching momentum and effort to overwhelm the consumer that make us think this is normal, this is right, this is exciting, this is ideal. Two hundred choices of sweet breakfast cereal mean you must choose from among them, or why would they be there? To overwhelm us into consuming more, they mobilize as armed forces, saturating stores and neighborhoods with pretend foods that do far more harm than good. The industry is on autopilot and is out of control. Their intensity is fearsome. This is war.
On the plus side, Sugar Fat Salt is enormously well researched. No lead, no document seems to have been too insignificant to follow up and interview the writer. Visits to executives, to factories, to stores, to conventions - all make the book comprehensive, thorough and fair. This is due in no small part to the interviewees themselves, who came to the conclusion on their own that what they were designing and selling was bad for living beings. Often, Moss found they were working to undo what they had done to the world. And they were, as he admits, incredibly open and generous with their time. It shows.
On the minus side, for all the evidence, the book draws no conclusions. There is no prescription, no way out. Moss does not call for the investigation, dismantling or regulation of anything. The facts he found are left to speak for themselves. The book simply ends.
Also on the minus side, Moss sometimes takes forever to deliver a fact. He'll foreshadow it in one paragraph, then spend several sentences describing some office building or scene before finally delivering the fact you were expecting. I guess he thinks he's adding color, but at 400 pages, Sugar Fat Salt could use a little pruning of its own.
The relentless pounding of the consumer is replicated by relentless pounding in the book. Case after case of singleminded efforts to get users hooked, of the thoughtless ruination of perfectly good foods that need chemical compounds to make them palatable again, and of the constant pressure to cut costs and increase sales are depressing insights into what's wrong with the food industry.
It's both insulting and sad, not to mention infuriating. The solution is as obvious as it is fantasy: people should steer clear of these poisons.
In the words of fitness buff Jack Lalane - if man made it, don't take it.