Books

Candy Whistle-Blowers

Salt Sugar Fat Will Change the Way You Think About Junk Food

It's the stuff that young journalists dream of, and the sort of situation that usually unfolds only in idealistic movies about reporters: A powerful source from inside an industry provides proof of a cover-up so deep and so awful that it implicates entire corporations in corrupt and harmful practices. Michael Moss, the Pulitzer Prize–winning New York Times reporter whose investigations into the ground-beef industry made "pink slime" a household term, unveils those sorts of orgasmic revelations repeatedly in his new book, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us (Random House, $28). Even before the book's publication last week, when the New York Times ran an extended excerpt in its Sunday magazine, you could tell Moss was up to something special, a book that could stand with the other monoliths of industrial-food journalism—Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, Schlosser's Fast Food Nation, and Sinclair's The Jungle.

Turns out, Salt Sugar Fat is just that good. It's the most scandalous book to be published this year—narrowly beating Lawrence Wright's Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief—and it's more compelling reading than any novel I've read in months. Taking information from an army of sources embedded deep inside the prepared-food industry, Moss alleges that the handful of corporations that dominate junk food have met on multiple occasions to discuss strategies to hoodwink the American public and keep us hooked on products that are poisoning us.

Moss structures Salt Sugar Fat in three sections. He opens with sugar, describing the long, weird evolution of breakfast cereal, from health food to candy (most of the popular brands of cereal, Moss explains, are now fully half sugar). These foods don't wind up sugar-soaked by accident; they're the result of years of scientific research to pinpoint what the industry refers to as the "bliss point," in which each bite is as loaded with as much sugar as possible without tipping over into nausea.

But the human body has no such bliss point for fat. Moss documents an experiment with student tasters:

The tasters were able to taste and quantify the sugar content of each sample quite accurately, but not the fat content; the participants... found it difficult to detect its presence with any precision at all. On top of that, when sugar was added to the fattier formulations, the students mistakenly thought the fat had been reduced.

To illustrate our inability to determine what's good for us, Moss explains the history of Lunchables, and of our increasing love affair with red meat and cheese (when Domino's Pizza moved its product into Mexico, to the tune of 36 tons of cheese a week, Mexico quickly became the second-most obese nation in the world, after the United States).

But Moss doesn't waste time on tut-tutting; he's too busy conducting a small symphony of whistle-blowers to prove malicious intent on behalf of the junk-food industry. He talks to a scion of the Coca-Cola Company, a son of a legendary Coke executive, who was himself in contention to run the entire company until his conscience broke when he witnessed firsthand the attempts to sell soda to impoverished children in Latin American countries. Moss introduces us to gut-churning cover-ups like the so-called Cancer Team, an internal group created by the USDA's beef-marketing organization to discredit science that suggests red meat causes cancer. He publishes a secret "manifesto," distributed at the highest echelons of the Kraft corporation soon after it was bought by cigarette manufacturer Philip Morris, predicting that what happened to the tobacco industry in the 1980s would soon befall the junk-food industry:

If your opponents do enough shoveling—while you stand there shaking your head—some of the stuff they throw at you will stick. And before long, the public may not be able to see you through the muck.

Salt Sugar Fat is a brilliant work of muckraking, and from here it looks like the first salvo in what could be a barrage of muck that might bury the immoral junk-food industry. recommended

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Comments (12) RSS

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freesandbags 1
I'm hungry...to read it.
Posted by freesandbags on March 6, 2013 at 9:40 PM · Report this
2
I hate this topic, just because with all the manipulation going on in processed foods, and all the conflicting science about what is/isn't bad for you, it's hard to know WHAT to eat. We seem to be the only animal that's not equipped to instinctively manage its own nutritional needs.

At this point I've basically thrown up my hands and given up on trying to figure out a "healthy" diet.
Posted by Orv on March 7, 2013 at 11:18 AM · Report this
3
@2, it's really not so hard. Michael Pollen's haiku-like formulation ("Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.") is excellent advice.
Posted by Ancient Sumerian on March 10, 2013 at 9:15 AM · Report this
--MC 4
I read that excerpt in the NYT. It filled me with a vivid and prolonged desire for Doritos.
Posted by --MC on March 11, 2013 at 8:37 AM · Report this
Karla Canadian 5
@2 I think the whole point was that we've been manipulated to eat certain foods.

"Bliss points" were important when fats/sugars/salts were hard to come by, but now finding your bliss just makes you too fat. Addictive as nicotine and nearly as evil. I say nearly, because in moderation (i.e. once a month) those foods aren't terrible.
Posted by Karla Canadian on March 11, 2013 at 8:39 AM · Report this
6
@2 - Actually animals are not as good at this as one might think. Ferrets LOVE chocolate, even though it can kill them (not like dogs, who just tend to get sick - and they go for the chocolate too). Granted, our ability to make terrible food far outstrips that of any other animal on the planet.
Posted by Raugiel on March 11, 2013 at 8:40 AM · Report this
7
Mmmm…bliss point
Posted by Sara Lee on March 11, 2013 at 8:54 AM · Report this
treacle 8
@2,6 -- I think Karla @5 points it out clearly. We ARE quite good at finding food that is good for us... when we lived by hunting and gathering 10,000 years ago. The process of living inside a giant machine (cities) & relying on industrial production and grocery stores to provide food, --all of which tend to have profit as the primary motive-- the majority of the "food" we are presented with is hardly natural.

Ferrets don't eat chocolate in the wild, because there is no chocolate in the wild, only cocoa pods, which are rather different than a Theo's candy bar.

@2 -- Healthy diet? One easy rule: stay away from packaged food. Eat mostly plants, as @3 points out. Very straight forward and effective.
Posted by treacle on March 11, 2013 at 11:09 AM · Report this
Arsfrisco 9
Eat mostly things that have only one or two ingredients on the label.
Posted by Arsfrisco on March 11, 2013 at 2:36 PM · Report this
Arsfrisco 10
...Because it takes at least three ingredients to 'engineer' the bliss point. The two-ingredient rule puts a firewall between you and the food engineers. But you still have to make healthy choices (see beer and peanuts).
Posted by Arsfrisco on March 11, 2013 at 3:52 PM · Report this
11
@3: "Mostly plants" doesn't seem to line up with the current studies claiming low-carb, high-protein diets are best.
Posted by Orv on March 15, 2013 at 12:16 PM · Report this
12
@5 Karla for the win!!! We have truly been brainwashed by the media, fast food, and junk food companies that push their toxic idea of processed "foods", including gluten-enriched baked goods that many of us cannot process, and salt, carbohydrates, and sugar--which leads to fat!

@8 treacle: I'm with @11 Orv---we need protein, too, and eating "mostly plants" doesn't quite do it for me, either. I'm quite the carnivore.
Posted by auntie grizelda on March 16, 2013 at 10:40 PM · Report this

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