Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Moss, Salt Sugar Fat

A side trip (and zero calorie treat) today. Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss (Random House, 2013) has received a lot of well-deserved praise. Even though I myself contribute almost nothing to the bottom line of the food giants (peanut butter is, I think, the only processed food I eat—admittedly, regularly and with relish—and, oh yes, some ice cream come summer) and even though I am no zealot when it comes to healthful eating, I found Moss’s book fascinating.

Let’s start with a provocative question that Moss didn’t raise: Should the likes of Kraft, NestlĂ©, or Pepsi be excluded from socially responsible investing portfolios? If gambling, tobacco, and alcohol are deemed in some way “sinful” (presumably because of their potentially addictive qualities and sometimes damaging consequences), why not processed food?

I need to backtrack here even to make sense of this question. Through a combination of science and marketing, the processed food industry has been a powerful force in shaping America’s (and increasingly the world’s) eating habits. The average American now consumes 22 teaspoons of sugar a day and as much as 33 pounds of cheese a year, triple the amount of cheese and pseudo-cheese products he consumed in the early 1970s. Those 33 pounds deliver “as many as 60,000 calories, which is enough energy, on its own, to sustain an adult for a month” and “have as many as 3,100 grams of saturated fat, or more than half a year’s recommended maximum intake.” (p. 170) As for salt, if you gobble down a frozen roast turkey dinner from Hungry Man, you’ll take in 5,400 milligrams of salt, “which is more salt than people should eat over the course of two days. Unless, that is, the people are baby boomers or older, black, or suffering from sodium-sensitive disease. In this case, the Hungry Man dinner would deliver enough salt to meet their quota for half a week.” (p. 267)

Moss takes the reader into food labs where scientists have worked on such projects as determining the bliss points for sugar and fat. By the way, there is a bliss point for sugar above which the taste buds cringe, but “the bliss point for fat, if there is one, is much higher, probably up in the stratosphere of the heaviest cream.” Fat is also energy dense, with twice the calories of sugar. (p. 260)

The numbers Moss provides are shocking and go a very long way toward explaining the obesity epidemic in this country.

Salt Sugar Fat is not just a book of numbers, of course. It is an engrossing tale of how companies have tried to provide consumers with what they like best at a competitive price and how they themselves have often created consumer demand. Take cold raw pizza, for instance. It might have seemed an unlikely candidate to become a runaway success, but kids loved this version of Lunchables. It didn’t hurt that the ad campaign offered a message of independence and empowerment: “All day, you gotta do what they say. But lunchtime is all yours.” (p. 208)

Moss, a Pulitzer Prize winning investigative reporter for The New York Times, did extensive research for this book and obviously tried to be fair to the industry even as he criticized it. Salt Sugar Fat is the kind of book that should advance a responsible national dialogue on healthful eating.

In the meantime, I’m starting to plan my vegetable garden for this year even though it is still heavily blanketed with snow. No St. Patrick’s Day pea planting here!

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