Salt Sugar Fat

It isn’t too difficult to politicize the obesity crisis. The problem of obesity has been crafted into two opposed narratives, from the left and right. From a conservative standpoint, the narrative is that people are obese because they, in a sense, chose to be, because they eat too much and exercise too little. The implication is that the food giants should not be held to account for the choices of their customers; instead, they fulfill a crucial function in the food supply chain by making it convenient for people to consume necessary calories.

From a more progressive perspective, food companies are viewed as complicit enablers in the obesity crisis. Prodded by Wall Street magnates into ever more frenzied competition with their business adversaries, these companies constantly pump out and market ever-more-tempting products that are carefully engineered to light up the pleasure centers in the brain, hooking customers on their product. “You can never stop at one” becomes a euphemism for what is really a dopamine-fueled addiction.

This latter narrative, in a nutshell, is the entire premise of Salt, Sugar Fat by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Michael Moss: an exposé of the practices of the food industry and their role in increasing obesity rates all over the world. Moss’s Pulitzer stemmed from his investigation into the hygiene practices of the meat-processing industry (spoiler: they’re poor), and he returns to what is essentially his native area of interest.

I don’t think Moss’s book breaks that much new ground here – it’s generally quite well-known that processed food isn’t exactly the healthiest thing ever. However, what is most interesting about the book is the insider look into the processed food industry, pieced together with lucidly-recounted talks Moss had with a very large number of former and current employees of the various food giants, most of which left the food industry after being disillusioned with the industry’s inability to curtail their ever-increasing use of salt, sugar and fat to entice and entrap consumers into their food-matrix. Moss makes a great deal about how many of these former executives of food giants like Coke, Kraft, and Nestle make it a point to not eat their companies’ products. Parallels to Gus Fring are apparent – the best dealers never partake of their own product, because they know precisely how bad it is.

Moss also takes an interesting segue into the world of food packaging and marketing. When your products are equally adept as your competitors’ at lighting up the pleasure centers of your customers, the best way to make sure you stay ahead of the pack is by creative marketing, which encompasses packaging, presentation and advertising. Moss’ accounts of the Coke-Pepsi marketing wars, or of the evolution of Lunchables into a blockbuster brand for Kraft, are some of the most entertaining parts of the book.

When all is said and done, Moss’s prescription – and perhaps the raison d’etre of the book – is for the reader to bear in mind that the food giants are employing all these tactics to try to hook you on their product. The next time you go grocery shopping – don’t fall for the tricks! Stay clean! Go cold turkey! The theme of metabolic determinism is clear that the whole adage of “eating in moderation” is fiendishly difficult to maintain, because even “eating in moderation” sustains the dependency on processed foods. Better to cut out these foods entirely if you can help it, Moss implicitly suggests.

I’m not 100% convinced that that’s really a viable strategy for everyone, but it’s certainly a good one for those who have the socioeconomic clout to eat healthily. Like Fast Food Nation before it, what the book says is perhaps less important than what it ultimately instills – the instinctive mistrust of processed food in the reader.

As an unrelated aside – the UK edition has a review from the Daily Mail – “The sinister reason you can never resist a crisp”. I find it amusing how it simultaneously sensationalizes and trivializes the book – in the way only the Daily Mail can. I’m not sure it necessarily instills much confidence into the prospective reader, though…

I give this book 3.5 out of 5 Lunchables

+ Parsimonious premise, good empirics and source material
+ Some great insider insights, especially on marketing practices
+ Could help instill mistrust of processed food in the reader

– The “Salt” section is noticeably weaker than the other two
– Not enough discussion on whether FDA recommended daily intake guidelines should be taken as gospel the way they are in the book

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