Salt Sugar Fat [Book Review]

Health-related books have always been a big hit in the non-fiction section at your local book store. Typically, they discuss the “truthful” conclusions of academic’s most recent studies. You’ve been there and have seen these transitions before. “How fat in your diet is terrible for you” to “Saturated Fats and Cholesterol are the only trouble makers” and then “Only LDL (low density lipids) from red meat is the type of Cholesterol that you should avoid.”  Recently, the dawn of “The new poison, Sugar” is a hit with emerging works of literature. After a while, these publications tend to get repetitive. And if you keep up with your reading over time, you even start to question if the new publications are going to be more truthful than the last.

The cover of the book, Salt Sugar Fat by Michael Moss, is another example of not “judging a book by its cover.” Its title leads us to believe that it’s another overdrawn story about the terrors of these ingredients, with each letter arranged in the manner similar to what you would find in an anonymous threat letter. However, to my surprise, it tickles a different side of the food world: the corporate side.

The story initiates with a high-class meeting among the major food corporates, where they debate about the new obesity epidemic that is wrecking the legacy of long-selling brand names: Kraft, Coke, Pillsbury, even the dairy sector. Questions like “What is causing it”, “their (quite major) role in the disease’s procession”, and “what they could do to remedy their brands”.  While this gathering illustrates the interest that these franchises possess on this topic, there is no real initiative to ensure their production of healthier products. Revenue and stock prices are the true gears that drive the direction that “nutrition” research, product inventions, and marketing strategies take.  And this theme foreshadows the rest of the book to follow.

Processed food exhibits MANY ingredients, but only three [hence the title] encompass the strong ratio of flavor vs. cost (salt especially at ~10 cents per pound). And with large brands come large “research and development” labs. Taste testing is utilized to optimize ingredient amounts (moderate sugar, and higher fat/salt levels) to maximize consumer enjoyment.  Advertising is utilized to unconsciously bind a brand to positive emotions. Economic surveys to track customer purchases as a response to modern trends (ex. work more / cook less).

This work also brings to light many creative methods that portray the scientific excellence behind the bags and cans. True success is found when marketing is geared toward “target audience” [specific soda (Dr. Pepper especially) fans, teens to baby boomers, male/female]. Companies have used generation fads (like low fat) to re-engineer, sometimes temporarily, the food to meet those demands (like adding more sugar).  Is it healthier? It’s actually probably worse. But the product needs to sell!

And my favorite of them all, product tweaks to remove consumer shame. For example, everyone knows that fatty foods are unhealthy. Why not change the phrase “deep-fried” to “toated” or “baked”? It’s the same reason why the image of “the red barn surrounded by green pastures” is so prevalent in grocery stores, and it’s not just on dairy produce! Help your audience forget that it’s caloric, salty, irresistible, and terrible for your kids. Put some “fruit juice” in it. Call it a vegetable (potato products anyone?).  Label it as if the vitamins (vitamin c in sunny delight) or minerals (calcium in chocolate milk) actually mean something, despite it being VERY misleading.

Yes, the book does detail some measures to improve the health quality of their “late-night snacks” and “fast dinners,” but it’s expensive. Replacing salt with spices and salt with KCl. They don’t mean a thing when their cost inhibits their sales. As the book concludes, the market is addicted to low-cost processed foods. We are biologically geared to crave terrible food, and it’s not just shown in scientific studies. When a company focused on processed foods creates a healthier version of a product, competitive companies get a spike in sales [a victory for Pepsi]. Likewise, when a company makes a more sensual, fatty-licious, sugar-spiked snack, that company strikes a market advantage and steals competitor profits [ a victory for frosted shredded wheats].

While people can whine and pout about how billion dollar brands are reshaping the food available for purchase, the community as a whole is truly at fault. The products are only there because we purchase them. And government regulation can only go so far, as we all know about the New York’s attempt at capping the serving size of sugar-based drinks [for those that don’t, it didn’t even last 2 years]. We have accustomed ourselves to favoring such disadvantageous eating habits to the point where government intervention is a discouraging solution.

The safest thing one can do is promote education. From my experience, along with many others, public schools do not effective teach their students the healthy aspects of food consumption beyond “calorie counting + active lifestyle => …?… => profit” aspect [which is quite misleading]. Most have to learn the hard way, and sometimes too late [for myself, I lost 40 lbs in high school and almost 20 more in college] And picking up a couple books, including a book like this one, will help individuals to truly understand the various view angles on the situation to fully be aware.

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