Friday, June 13, 2014

Salt Sugar Fat by Michael Moss

"In the end, that is what this book is about. It will show how the makers of processed foods have chosen, time and again, to double down on their efforts to dominate the American diet, gambling that consumers won't figure them out....Inevitably, the manufacturers of processed food argue that they have allowed us to become the people we want to be, fast and busy, no longer slaves to the stove. But in their hands, the salt, sugar, and fat they have used to propel this social transformation are not nutrients as much as weapons - weapons they deploy, certainly, to defeat their competitors but also to keep us coming back for more."

This book is the summer reading for a class I may be teaching, and as a fairly food conscious person, I was willing to give it a whirl even if I don't end up teaching the associated class. If you enjoy books in the vein of Fast Food Nation; In Defense of Food; Animal, Vegetable, Miracle; etc; then this book is definitely for you. 

I did a Whole 30 earlier this year (a strict Paleo diet where basically the only thing you can eat is unprocessed meat, fruit, and vegetables. No sugar, sweeteners, gluten, soy, beans, dairy, preservatives, etc) and for the first time really learned how HARD it is to live a whole unprocessed life. Almost all processed or pre-made food is off limits - even at stores like Whole Foods or Fresh and Easy - because there is Sugar and Soy and Crap in EVERYTHING. Nothing is convenient and it is almost impossible to eat out at any place but a nice restaurant which is just not affordable. I know how important and impossible it is to eat whole unprocessed foods.

I also know that as soon as my 30 days was up, I was back to shoving food in my mouth in my car and throwing away the wrappers in shame. Hello McDonald's cherry pies 2 for $1 and Cadbury Eggs and Jelly Belly Sour Jelly Beans and Tiny Boxes of Chocolate and FRENCH FRIES and Sour Patch Watermelon and Ice Cream Every Night. I know better, and I've done better, and still...for some reason...I want that french fry with that sweet tea with that cherry pie bite. (The only lasting effect of my Whole 30 is that I am completely off of fake sweeteners and drink my coffee black.) 

So why can't I (and the rest of America) let these foods go? Why do I have no self control? Is it my mommy issues or my body issues or my teenage issues or do I need even MORE therapy? According to Michael Moss, those things can only be held partly responsible - the food companies are far more responsible than we think.

The book is broken up into three sections: Sugar, Fat, Salt, and each section presents its related information from a variety of sources: scientific papers, food scientists who create special versions of things for Moss to sample, current and former big wigs at various food companies, data and news reports about health and nutrition, etc. The scope of his sources are impressive, and although he doesn't foot/endnote, he does provide a serious list afterwards. The most surprising thing for me as a consumer is how much NOTHING IS AN ACCIDENT. There is nothing about that box of Oreos or that bag of Takis or that bottle of Coca Cola that is accidental - the companies have spent millions and billions of dollars making sure that we keep eating and drinking and snacking so they can keep making more and more money (in spite of the fact that there is only so much any one person can eat and drink - they still need to raise their profits).

Sugar: In this section, Moss describes the research that goes into finding the 'bliss point' or the point of sugary sweetness that is perfect, the CocaCola Pepsi wars, the introduction of Free Refills, the development of Cherry Vanilla Dr. Pepper, the way cereals can be up to 70% sugar and still called cereal, and how sugar has transformed 'healthy' foods into candy (like yogurt! So healthy! Some flavors have more sugar than ice cream!) 

Fat: In this section, Moss details the dairy subsidies that have pushed up American consumption of cheese and milk, how processed cheese came to be, how cheese went from taking 18 months to make to taking 1 day by just adding a ton of different chemicals that mimic the natural aging process, how Paula Deen and Kraft worked together to make cream cheese sales skyrocket, how Lunchables came to be, the pink slime fiasco, and how the FDA and USDA find themselves in contradictory positions (like the USDA takes a fee from Big Beef/Big Dairy in order to create marketing for Beef. It's What's For Dinner. and Cheese in spite of the fact that their own guidelines suggest "The cheese and meat we eat should be of the non- and lower-fat varieties" which is difficult because consumers buy almost no non/low-fat cheese and there are "no whole cuts of red meat...that fall within the USDA's definition of low fat.")

Salt: This chapter is the smallest because at this point we have already seen the factories, tasted in their food science tasting rooms, and interviewed the important players in the previous two chapters because salt, sugar, and fat are inextricable from one another. We meet the company that sells food companies their salt, sugar, and fat in a billion formations - perfect for all their needs, bemoan the amount of sodium in everything, examine why it's so hard to take out (it's not just about taste - salt and sodium products give texture, color, shelf life, etc), and discuss how people DEVELOP a salt tooth (whereas a sweet tooth is totally innate).

The book ends on an anecdote of a community of parents, teachers, and one principal trying to stop kids from shopping at the corner stores on their way to/from schools and how fruitless it is. Sure, the kids can get free breakfast at school, but for $2 they can buy a soda, a bag of chips, and a candy bar, and they would much rather eat those things that have been perfectly engineered to meet their salt, sugar, fat desires and perfectly marketed to their demographic, ethnicity, and class. 

"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...'People who work in these companies have very little in common, frequently, with their audience,' he said. 'They're super educated, and their incomes are much higher, and their lifestyles are frequently very different.'"

1 comment:

Christopher said...

I'm not gonna read this because it seems like it would make me feel bad about my habits and I don't want to change.