Salt, Sugar, Fat book is for anyone who eats, or has ever eaten, any processed food at all.
Written by Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, Michael Moss, it chronicles the growing quantities of cheap, flavorful fillers that big food Companies pack into their products to hook consumers.
The story starts off like a thriller: at a meeting of the head honchos of the most powerful (read profitable!) food brands in the world — including Kraft, Coca-Cola, Kellogg, Nestlé, Pillsbury, Cargill. The conclave, held way back in 1999 enumerated the massive social cost of obesity, including, diabetes, heart disease, osteoarthritis, cancer, etc. All directly connected with diet, and the foods these companies were marketing.
Today we know that these companies chose profit over health.
The book is a 3-part exposé of the three key ingredients that make these food products so appetizing – salt, sugar and fat.
Grounded in eye-opening research, the book analyses the rise of the 3 pillars of the processed food industry, through interviews with scientists, industrialists, and researchers. Unearthing the science and psychology, the research methodology and marketing techniques that goes into building the larger-than-life image that processed foods brands enjoy.
Part 1 explores sugar.
Or how to exploit the biology of a child.
“We are hard-wired for sweets,” is how this section begins. Moss goes on to meticulously lay bare the research that goes into finding the ‘bliss point’ of our taste-buds so companies can formulate the exact amount of sugar needed to make us crave their products. Since we are all born with a sweet tooth, and a child’s desire and threshold for sugar is higher, the natural target for these sugar-laden treats is the child.
Sugar is addictive.
Research shows that the brain lights up for sugar the same way it does for cocaine. So why is sugar the key ingredient in most packaged foods in supermarket shelves today? And why do food companies defend it so vigorously? Because it’s not just the taste that is invaluable to food companies, it is also critical to the bulk, texture, level of crystallization, crunch, colour, etc. In fact limit sugar and the stuff that is produced is “…shrunken, pale, flat or distended.” Sounds disgusting, doesn’t it?
Stories of Kelloggs journey from a healthy breakfast to the sugar-laden frosty flakes, Pepsi and Coke wars and the erstwhile owner of Marlboro, Philipp Morris, who now owned two of the largest food companies: General Foods and Kraft.
Part 2 explores fat.
The magical effect of fat on food.
The taste of fat is hard to define. It doesn’t hit any of the usual spots on our taste buds, yet it conjures up a feel which lights up the pleasure centre of our brains. This it does by “turning listless chips into crunchy marvels, parched bread into silky loaves, drab lunchmeat into savory delicatessen. “
Not only does fat improve flavor, texture and colour, it also extends shelf life, and is relatively cheap, thus saving manufacturers a whole lot of money. The biggest danger with fat is that though it has twice the calories of sugar the brain the brain sees as a friend and simply does not scream ‘enough’ as it does with sugar.
Moss compares sugar and fat to two different drugs. One, sugar, which delivers a high-speed, blunt assault to our brains. And the other, fat, more insidious, an opiate, a smooth operator whose effects are equally powerful, but far less obvious.
In 2010, a USDA report named saturated fat the primary cause high cholesterol, leading to strokes and heart attacks. Meat and cheese were by far the worst offenders, with highest amount of saturated fat in the processed food industry. The report attributed the rampant rise of type 2 diabetes to saturated fat. Consumption data showed chronically high saturated fat levels among children, with 1-3 year olds ingesting the most.
It says much for the lobbying power of the meat and dairy industry that this report was buried.
Part 3 explores salt.
Salt – a craving that’s man-made
Sodium, one of the chemical elements in salt, is essential in small doses, but ingesting large amounts pulls fluids from the body’s tissues into the blood, raising the blood volume and compelling the heart to pump more forcefully. The result: high blood pressure, otherwise known as hypertension.
Added to help in food processing, to bind ingredients, to disguise food deterioration and preserve food, salt is pumped into people through a dozen sodium-based compounds.
When the chips are down…no one can eat just one
Salt is critical to the industry because of its powers to “override the dark side of processed foods”. Which means disguise foul tasting preservatives and degenerating foods. Plus, like sugar and fat, salt improves the taste and texture of packaged food.
The interesting thing about salt though, is that it’s easy to slash intake. Apart from a brief while when subjects miss the taste, taste-buds accustomed to the bombardment of salt regain sensitivity so they need less to experience its pleasures.
No salt, no sugar and no fat, simply means no sale.
Many senior employees of these multinational food companies felt guilty about selling products so clearly detrimental to health. Many avoided their own products. Yet they continue to suppress health warnings and find new ways of marketing them. Why? Because the industry is more addicted to these 3 pillars of processed food than the consumer is. You see, without salt, sugar, fat the industry itself would cease to exist.
Look beyond the sheer convenience of ready-to-eat foods, the insidious marketing of larger pack sizes, and the deliberately misleading labels. It’s time to understand what actually lies behind a food label, and make an educated choice.