Michael Moss, Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us (New York: Random House, 2013), 446pp.
We all eat too much salt, sugar and fat. Obesity, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and hypertension are now epidemics. The United States is the most obese country in the world. Michael Moss, winner of a Pulitzer Prize for his previous investigative journalism, explains how we got to this point, and it's not a pretty picture. True, consumers bear their own responsibilities, but he lays the blame squarely upon the food behemoths like Cargill, Philip Morris, Kraft, General Foods, and Coca-Cola for poisoning us.
When you enter a grocery store, not the slightest detail whatsoever has been left to chance. The "creators of crave" utilize the most sophisticated ways and means available to them, from brain research to ruthless and deceptive marketing tactics. It's all "perfectly engineered to compel overconsumption." They have been wildly successful.
Kellogg spends a billion dollars a year on advertising. That "healthy" yogurt you eat could have two times the amount of sugar as sweetened cereal. Some cereals are really a form of candy, with 50% or more sugar. The sweetness of sugar can be amplified to 200 times its normal state. With food companies using about 5 billion pounds of salt a year, it's no wonder many of us eat 10-20 times the amount of salt we need, and only about 6% of that comes from your shaker; about 75% of it comes from processed foods. As for fat, we get most of that from red meat and cheese.
Moss's narrative is also a cultural history — Tang ($500 million a year in sales), Oreos (490 billion sold), Kool-Aid ($800 million a year in sales), the fictional Betty Crocker, Capri Sun, Cheez Whiz, and Lunchables. A few senior executives go on record with genuine candor and deep regrets about how they sacrificed public interests for corporate profits. And Moss cuts them a break, of sorts. They are caught in a double bind. They, too, are addicted to salt, sugar and fat to survive, and they face merciless competition that translates into Wall Street's pressure for profits.
Moss interviewed hundreds of people across three-plus years. Despite a few hopeful signs from the food industry, don't expect any help from them. They deny their culpability. Nor from the government, which often aids and abets them. But we're not helpless; we have choices. Here's one simple guideline I try to follow — avoid as many processed foods as possible. In the lingo of Michael Pollan, eat food and not "food-like substances." That's hard with kids, jobs, and harried lives. As I wrote this review, Dunkin Donuts announced a new "Breakfast Sandwich" made of a fried egg and bacon between two glazed donuts. We can say no.