Book: Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss
Publisher: Random House
Publication date: 2013
Summary: Michael Moss, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting in 2010 for research and writing about food safety issues, takes a longer and deeper look at the food industry in Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. Delving into the historical background and elucidating the current state of things, Salt Sugar Fat examines the obesity epidemic by shining a light on the ingredients that go into modern processed food.
Thoughts: I don’t usually review a book until I’ve finished it, but the library wants Salt Sugar Fat back to give to someone else. I’m not surprised–Michael Moss has been everywhere talking about this book. Since the effects of processed food is one of my biggest concerns, I’m glad that it’s getting the attention it deserves, even if that means that I have to read this book in shifts.
I got so much from Part One of the book, Sugar, that I decided that I’ll write my thoughts in three parts since it’s likely that I’ll end up reading the book in a piecemeal fashion.
I feel knowledgeable on this subject, so I was taken by surprise by all the things I didn’t know about the processed food industry.
Let’s start with the thing that made me mad, the role of juice concentrate. I don’t know about you, but when I see “juice concentrate” on a label I’m picturing a can of frozen orange juice concentrate. Not the healthiest of foods, perhaps, but I’ve always considered it a clever ingredient in recipes for a touch of sweetness while adding a bit of fiber and some micronutrients. Here’s the reality:
Juice concentrate is made through an industrial process that is highly variable, including any or all of the following steps: peeling the fruit, thereby removing much of the beneficial fiber and vitamins; extracting the juice from the pulp, which loses even more of the fiber; removing the bitter compounds; adjusting the sweetness through varietal blending; and evaporating the water out of the juice. At its extreme, the process results in what is known within the industry as “stripped juice,” which is basically pure sugar, almost entirely devoid of the fiber, flavors, aromas, and or any of the other attributes we associate with real fruit. In other words, the concentrate is reduced to just another form of sugar, with no nutritional benefit over table sugar or high-fructose corn syrup. Rather, its value lies in the healthy image of fruit that it retains….A company like General Foods can use this stuff and still put the comforting words contains real fruit on the box. (p. 134)
This makes me so mad because I’ve fallen for it, recently, even though I’ve seen other objections to it, just not worded in this way. I thought the worries were only applicable to diabetics or, worse, represented the ranting of the sugar prudes — people who consider the local maple syrup in my salad dressing to be a sin. This isn’t the first time I’ve dismissed the shrill nanny voices of our culture only to discover that they are closer to the mark than what’s written on the packages of the food I buy.
Did you know how big a role that tobacco companies have played in processed food for most of the last three decades? R. J. Reynolds bought Nabisco in 1985. Since then, and a much bigger deal, Philip Morris bought General Foods and Kraft. The two largest food manufacturers in the world are now under the umbrella of the world’s largest cigarette maker. No wonder the food industry has become so good at marketing products that we know, on one level, are bad for us and yet still find so irresistible. They have access to the play book of the champions in that arena.
I was surprised by how deliberately food companies target their most loyal customers. At Coca-Cola, we’re called “heavy users.” It turns out that, like many things, the use of a product like Coke follows the 80-20 rule — around 80 percent of the soda is consumed by around 20 percent of soda drinkers. A food or beverage company makes more money with less effort by getting existing customers to consume even more.
There are lots of studies about sugar that I either never heard about or didn’t remember.
A rat study from the 1970s found that it’s easy to fatten rats if you give them all they want of high-fat, high-sugar foods. It turns out just adding fat to the chow won’t do it, because the rats won’t eat enough of it. But if you give them a sweet treat, like candy bars, they will become obese in a few weeks.
They loved it, and this craving completely overrode the biological brakes that should have been saying: Stop. (p. 6)
Rats will lunge for cheesecake even after they have been trained to expect an electric shock for doing it.
Did you know sugar is an analgesic, a pain-reliever? And it works from birth. Studies have shown that a newborn will cry less if given sugar and that a young child will hold her hand in cold water longer if there is sweetness on her tongue. Children, with their need for energy-rich foods as they grow, are particularly susceptible to high-sugar products and appreciate foods that are much sweeter than adult palates like.
I was prepared to put food industry magnates in the role of tobacco producers, knowingly selling a product that had no redeeming characteristics. But as the book looked back at the 1950s, I could see how well-meaning people might have genuinely thought that convenience products were going to make the world a better place. All of us, particularly women, would be able to do finer things with our lives if our time wasn’t taken up by the hours it takes to make a pudding from scratch.
Even now, I struggle with the awareness of how much time I spend in the kitchen. Part of that, of course, is that we were sold on the notion that it’s more important to be a lab researcher working on a cure for cancer than it is to be a homemaker perfecting a cabbage salad. As it turns out, a daily dose of cabbage salad is probably one of the best defenses to cancer. But, as a society, we don’t value that in the same way. The decline of home economics as a respected profession that could have countered the convenience food message is a sad tale told in the first third of this book.
Appeal: Obviously, Salt Sugar Fat got my neurons firing! Yours will fire, too, if you care about the obesity epidemic, the industrial food complex, or what to eat today.
Other Reviews: Would you like to see the thoughts of someone who actually managed to read the book first before spewing words on the screen? Check out Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss by Niranjana Iyer at Brown Paper.
Beth Fish Reads hosts Weekend Cooking every Saturday. Her post today will have links to reviews, recipes, and restaurant adventures.