“Take more than a little salt, or sugar, or fat out of processed food, these experiments showed, and there is nothing left. Or, even worse, what is left are the inexorable consequences of food processing, repulsive tastes that are bitter, metallic and astringent. The industry has boxed itself in.”
Journalist Michael Moss has a long history of reporting on food issues, including E. coli contamination in peanut butter, and coining the phrase “pink slime” to describe the ammonia-treated beef being served in American school cafeterias in 2009, for which he won a Pulitzer. In Salt Sugar Fat, Moss turns his investigative reporting skills onto the key ingredients processed food companies use to make their food products edible, not to mention desirable and even craveable, with carefully calculated “bliss points.” Moss demonstrates how the three main tenets of the food industry—taste, convenience and cost—have left companies critically dependent upon these ingredients, and consumers at their mercy.
Moss draws on vast amounts of research that have gone into understanding flavour and taste. Even when these studies are funded, in whole or part, by industry giants, they gain credibility by the fact that these companies have every reason to want to understand exactly how they can make their products as desirable as possible. While the industry may tend to reveal the information selectively, trying to spin it in their favour, in Moss’s hands these reports are revealing and often damning, despite his even-handed reporting style. Moss relates the research without bogging down the reader, and frequently ties it back to concrete examples of products that fit the bill. He also interviews a variety of industry insiders about the impact of their products, though those who remain loyal to the industry were, understandably, reluctant to speak with him.
Although the book is divided into three sections, one for each key ingredient, Moss never loses sight of the relationship between them. He clearly demonstrates that consumers need to keep their eyes on all three balls at once. If fat is the villain of the hour, food companies may lower the fat content to appease the public, and make up for the loss in flavour by increasing the salt or sugar load. Marketing plays a key role in this subterfuge, which is also explored, if not as deeply as it could be. Companies can create an aura of health around a product by emphasizing whole grains or real fruit, despite jacked up levels of salt, sugar, or fat.
However, just removing salt, sugar, or fat doesn’t prove to be the answer. Though he clearly weighs in on the side of healthier eating, Moss offers a (limited) voice to both sides of the debate, visiting Kellogg laboratories to taste what the products would be like if the company would just remove the salt. Moss describes the results as “a culinary horror show” with dire implications for companies trying to improve the nutritional profile of their products. The emphasis for the industry has been on self-regulation, but this poses an incredible challenge that goes beyond figuring out how to remove salt, sugar, and fat from products. A company that reduces these flavour enhancers voluntarily is at the mercy of competitors who refuse to do the same, or who don’t reduce as much. As a result, they are under constant pressure from Wall Street to stay the course.
One of the most telling revelations is the role cheese and meat—heavily subsidized by the American government—play in sabotaging the American diet. Cheese and meat account for nearly thirty percent of the saturated fat consumed by the average American. By contrast, cookies, cakes and pastries account for a paltry six percent. Yet the surplus of dairy products created by the subsidy ensures that cheese finds its way into ever more products as an ingredient, so that the average American now consumes over thirty pounds of cheese per year. What’s worse, consumers don’t even seem to be able to detect the extra fat. The government comes off looking very bad indeed, with initiatives to improve eating habits and educate consumers receiving a fraction of the funding of the beef and dairy subsidies. Although the food companies bear the brunt of the scrutiny, Moss certainly doesn’t let the government off the hook.
Of course, not all the experience gleaned by the processed food industry is bad. The knowledge food executives have gained about marketing and appeal can also be applied to healthier foods. Jeff Dunn, formerly of Coca-Cola, moved onto selling baby carrots as a snack food, with the “Snack on That” campaign, which, at first description, sounds like a marketing strategy for potato chips or pretzels. Leveraging this knowledge is potentially powerful for shifting our eating habits back towards healthier choices. Also in the realm of good news, Moss discusses research demonstrating that our tastes for some flavours are adjustable, and can be recalibrated; reducing your sodium intake for twelve weeks can reset your taste buds so that you only need a fifth of the salt you could tolerate before.
Though it runs to four hundred pages, Salt Sugar Fat is an investigation, not a solution. Nevertheless it provides valuable insight into the practices of processed food companies that consumers should be more aware of.