Read June 2014
Recommended for people who eat
★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2
“We rarely get in the situation where our body and brain are depleted of nutrients and are actually in need of replenishment. Rather, he discovered, we are driven to eat by other forces in our lives. Some of these are emotional needs, while others reflect the pillars of processed food: first and foremost taste, followed by aroma, appearance, and texture.“
If you eat food, you should read this book. Sugar Salt Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us caused a very conflicted reaction in me, because although American capitalism is founded on the principle of caveat emptor, the vast majority of people have never been given the tools and information to make informed decisions. And when the government, and by extension, public schools, align themselves with the food giants, surely it is unfair to put all the responsibility on the consumer. Yes, it is up to us what we eat–how we fuel our bodies. But without labels that reflect a real serving size, classes for every student on nutrition and cooking, and foods that a create repeat buyers, not daily nutrition, it seems like we are doomed. Moss gives the reader a crash course in modern packaged food development and the three cardinal points of salt, sugar and fat, its strong connection with marketing and consumerism, and its somewhat ethically challenged science (hello, Oppenheimer) that connects it with biology and craving.
Starting with the best of intentions, scientists in the 1970s were trying to improve Meals, Ready-To-Eat (MREs) for the military, experimenting with enticing soldiers to eat enough calories on foods packaged to last three years. A pivotal scientist, Moskowitz, discovered two important taste guidelines. One, although soldiers would say they liked flavorful foods, they quickly grew tired of them, while a more neutrally flavored white bread they could eat every day. In other words, distinct flavors overwhelm the brain and make us feel full fast. Secondly, Moskowitz discovered that while we liked foods more as more sugar was added, that only worked until a specific point when it became “too sweet” and more unpalatable. Coined “the bliss point,” it set off a revolution in taste research. Research done by Drewnowski, an epidemiology professor, made similar progress with fat by devising a study using mixtures of milk, cream and sugar. He discovered there was no bliss point in his mixtures for fat, no point in which the participants would refuse to eat a high-fat mixture. Furthermore, adding a little sugar to the fatty mixes made them taste better. Even worse, when the sugar was added to the fat combinations, the participants thought fat had been reduced. Thematically, this will come up again and again, a central tenant of Moss’ research: our biology is being researched and identified not to benefit us, but to sell us more product.
One of the more interesting points about Salt Sugar Fat is how well Moss humanizes people in the food industry, showing how individuals trying to make a living or pursue their own intellectual bliss contributed to the growth of addictive foods. For instance, he demonstrates how Kellogg was attempting to make the health food of his time, and how it eventually lost market share when other sugar-promoting cereals were created. When Kraft’s co-CEO started championing an anti-obesity initiative, and stocks started to slump as competitors gained, she was removed from her position and eventually left the company. When Campbell’s tried to cut back on salt in their soups, they lost enough market share that a new CEO announced they would be starting a new line–with even more salt. Sadly, a number of his sources are people who have come to regret their professional contributions as they’ve seen the effects of the rising obesity epidemic. But some really are out to just make the most money, and they blame you for your addiction to Cheesy-Poofs.
“The prevailing attitude among the company’s food managers… was one of supply and demand. ‘People could point to these things and say, ‘They’ve got too much sugar, they’ve got too much salt,’ he said. ‘Well, that’s what the consumer wants, and we’re not putting a gun to their head to eat it. That’s what they want. If we given them less, they’ll buy less, and the competitor will get our market. So you’re sort of trapped.’“
So you see, people, its your own fault that we have Fudge-Covered Oreos, and Hungry Man dinners with enough salt for two people’s recommended daily allowance–you wouldn’t buy the low-fat versions. However, it does give me a faint sort of hope that by continued advocacy, consumers have a shot at actually getting products that appeal–and are actually healthy.
Far from the nanny state protecting the citizen against herself, the government has played an active role in encouraging certain unhealthy foods as part of supporting America’s economic health. In 1985, the Department of Agriculture had a problem on its hands–Reagan wanted to decrease milk subsidies, which mean shrinking the cow herds, which meant a glut of beef at the market. Congress tried to help by creating two marketing programs, one for beef and one for milk and put Ag in charge of them. Remember the “Beef: It’s what’s for dinner” campaign? Yeah, if you are over thirty, no doubt you do. Or the dairy mustache that’s still making the magazine rounds? Those weren’t about our health, people.
There was a moment in the Salt section that mentioned processing, nitrites and cancer–I believe Moss might have even said leukemia. I started to feel sick–I work in that city with the Oscar Meyer plant and had noticed three or four patients with leukemia who worked there. It got even worse when Moss wrote about a report in 2007 by the American Institute for Cancer Reasearch. A research review of over 7000 studies, the researchers felt confident that meats increased the risk of cancer, especially charred and processed meats. In fact, research showed no amount of processed meat was safe. Even more disturbing–using those government funds, the cattle associations fought back, attempting to discredit and spin away the report. They, like the food giant CEOs, blamed it on us–on our alcohol, our obesity, our inactivity, our lack of vegetables. Processed meat was only one tiny part of the cancer problem.
What I especially liked is that near the end, Moss snuck in a loaded tidbit in the discussion of Oscar Meyer’s Lunchables line: “There is a class issue at work in processed foods, in which the inventors and company executives don’t generally partake in their own creations. Thus the heavy reliance on focus groups.” Processed foods are generally convenience foods, and are geared particularly towards busy parents who want to provide appealing meals with low preparation time, which generally means working-class parents, not people with the time to research recipes, watch Rachel Ray, shop at Whole Foods and spend an hour preparing and cooking dinner, even if it does make leftovers for the next day. So I appreciate the nod to the economics.
So you see, our biology is being exploited. As a nurse, and a sugar-aholic (you know how often I’ve referenced chocolate in these reviews!), I have to say I believe that the closer we eat to real food, the better off our bodies are. You want to prevent cancer? Exercise. Eat a diet low in processed foods, low in meats, and high in raw fruits and vegetables. Processed foods are not only bad for our bodies, they are bad for our psychology and our taste buds, because they teach us to tolerate high levels of salt and to crave high levels of sugar–so much so that real, unadulterated food starts to seem ‘boooooring!’ We’ve set our sweet and salt taste points so high, we wouldn’t recognize a naturally sweet orange when we tried it (did you ever wonder why they used to be put in Christmas stockings as a treat?). But clearly it is up to you, dear consumer, so educate yourself.