“Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us” is the first book from Pulitzer-prize winning author and journalist Michael Moss. It’s a fascinating look at the politics, economics and demographic trends that shape our food culture, and the ways that big food companies capitalize on them.
Bucking the trend of the “shocking tell-all exposé” that is prevalent on the bestseller shelves, Moss instead presents a historical and philosophical look at the foods we love to eat, and examines the driving forces behind the corporations that produce those wonderful, sumptuous foods.
The fact that we love those wonderful, three forbidden ingredients – salt, sugar, and fat – is surprising to none. However, what may be surprising to many people are the ways in which food producers capitalize on our near-addictive consumption of these ingredients.
The Cheesy Truth
“[amazon_link id=”1400069807″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Salt Sugar Fat[/amazon_link]” is full of fascinating interviews and bits of research that push deep into corporations and government entities to expose long-standing attitudes and practices of which most consumers are blissfully unaware.
One part I found stunning was the backstory on the USDA’s push to get people to eat more cheese. A bite of cheese, on the whole, isn’t that bad for you. Sure, it’s got a high fat content, but it also contains calcium and protein. However, Moss takes us back in time to the Reagan administration, where the excessive production of America’s dairies began to lay part of the the foundation for the calorie crisis that we face today.
American milk production has long been a government-subsidized process, supported partially by the government purchasing huge surpluses of milk every year from dairy producers in order to keep market values consistent. However, health-conscious consumers increasingly started demanding lower and lower fat milk. Although the producers could take the fat out of the milk, they knew that the milkfat had some level of commercial value – as butter, and more importantly, cheese. Consequently, cheese production soared in the early 80’s.
However ingenious this solution might be, there was now a new problem. The government had more stockpiled milk – and more butter and cheese – than they could ever possibly make use of. Once certain members of Congress caught wind of this $4 billion government stockpile of dairy products, they raised a stink. The American consumer was drinking less milk, and they also wouldn’t be coerced into eating more fatty cheese.
The solution? Market cheese as an ingredient, not as a food. It turned out to be an incredibly effective solution, with cheese and cheese products being added to thousands of processed and pre-packaged goods. The net result of this marketing scheme is that Americans are now eating three times more cheese than they were in the 1970’s.
The problem with increased cheese consumption is that people don’t hit a saturation point with fat, like they do with sugar and salt. Adding more sugar or salt to products will eventually have a negative impact on their taste – but adding fat to products does not seem to have the same effect. In fact, adding fat to most products seems to make them even more attractive to our palate. Walk down the frozen food section of your grocery store and note how many products contain cheese or milkfat in some form. It’s scary.
Context is Everything
Moss peppers his book with the historical and political context of processed food production, ranging from the Cola Wars, to the bipolar goals of the USDA, to the continual debate over whether children’s eating habits are truly influenced by advertising.
“[amazon_link id=”1400069807″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Salt Sugar Fat[/amazon_link]” is not designed to be shocking; rather, I see it as a starting point for reflection on what we purchase and consume. Once I had finished the book, it dawned on me that Moss spent a great deal of time focusing on snack foods in particular. This isn’t because the snack-food industry is low-hanging fruit for investigative journalists; rather, it’s that these product lines are huge cash cows for the companies that make them – and they have been for decades.
The age-old debate on whether companies are to be condemned for selling us exactly what we want carries on. Moss doesn’t attempt to take sides here, but the evidence he presents should make anyone think twice about the amount of processed food that we allow into our daily lives.
The Bottom Line
“[amazon_link id=”1400069807″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us[/amazon_link]” is a highly recommended read for all Wellness Rebels. Too few of us realize the precedents that have been set when it comes to our food system; our consumption patterns are very much based on massive corporate forces that long ago shaped our perceptions of the value and benefit of food that comes in a box, can or package. Read it, think about it, and manifest some change in our your own food habits.