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.