You could easily ask: why was the new book “Salt Sugar Fat” even published? Don’t we already know that these three ingredients contribute to overeating and poor health? Don’t we already know that the goal of food companies is to make lots of money?
Well, yes we do already know that. But this book is a useful and readable exposé of the food industry and what it is doing to us. Author Michael Moss is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist with The New York Times. Moss wrote about the food business for several years; he broke the story of how hamburger is made from a concoction called “pink slime.” His reporting eventually led to “Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us.”
The book sets the scene with several important trends that really got going in the 1980s.
One trend was for families to get away from sit-down, home-cooked meals. Instead — often on the run — we started gobbling down more fast and processed foods.
A second trend was for Wall Street to put more pressure on food (indeed, all) companies to produce higher and continuous profits.
A third trend was to ramp up the marketing of food, especially when tobacco companies bought major food companies Kraft, Nabisco and General Foods.
A fourth trend was to formulate processed foods with much greater sophistication. New technologies — such as brain scans of people eating —were employed. Scientists spent millions finding the exact “bliss point” of the salt, sugar and fat required to seduce us into buying and eating more and more. These trends have now become a major cause of today’s overeating, poor food choices and other health problems.
Author Moss was able to uncover the inner workings of the food industry. Companies were ready to share some information — they wanted to tell their side of the story. Moss interviewed hundreds of people and visited facilities like Campbell Soup in New Jersey, Cargill in Minnesota and Nestlé in Switzerland.
And there were two other interesting sources.
One source was “entirely a matter of happenstance.” In the 1990s, tobacco companies were required to release internal corporate records as part of a settlement with the U.S. government. Since tobacco companies also owned food companies, they revealed millions of pages of confidential information about their food operations as well.
Another source was disillusioned company insiders. These executives and scientists had regrets about their work and wanted the world to know. One, the former chief scientist with Frito-Lay, told the author, “I feel so sorry for the public.”
Another whistleblower was Jeffrey Dunn, a former executive with Coca Cola. Dunn was even in the running to become the company’s president. But an epiphany occurred when he was touring the next target for his product: a slum in Brazil. He thought: “These people need a lot of things, but they don’t need a Coke.”
At that moment in Brazil, Dunn “felt his stomach sink. Suddenly, the kids there, along with the kids in the United States, seemed so unfairly lured, so helpless in the face of the company’s tactics, so utterly vulnerable to the addictive powers of Coke …”
In his book, Moss thoroughly explains the issues involved. How we naturally crave salt, sugar and fat. How these ingredients in turn are essential: not only to preserve processed foods, but also to make them more alluring. How the food companies are in cut-throat competition with each other. How the companies are beholden to Wall Street.
The bottom line: the food industry cannot reduce — in any meaningful way — the use of salt, sugar and fat. Any solution is up to us.
“After all,” Moss concludes, “we decide what to buy. We decide how much to eat.”
It is up to us to pursue a balanced, healthy approach. To avoid fast and processed foods. To shop for real foods and prepare them at home. And to eat — and enjoy — the moderate amounts we need of salt, sugar and fat.
We can emulate the food company executives themselves. Moss reports that many of the executives he interviewed were quite concerned about their own health — they took the time to exercise and to eat carefully. As a result, they “go out of their way to avoid their own products.”
» David McConkey is an active citizen. Contact him and read previous columns at davidmcconkey.com
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition December 16, 2013