Review: Salt Sugar Fat

This 2013 book by Pulitzer prize winning author Michael Moss got a lot of attention when it came out — and it deserves it.

(Don’t confuse it with the 2017 cookbook Salt Fat Acid Heat, which I also recommend!)

The subject is (ultra) processed food (the book’s subtitle is “how the food giants hooked us”), which are formulated with salt, sugar and fat as ingredients that make the food more attractive to consumers. These ingredients also help with baking, storage and product quality, but the main goal is more sales.

The book is long and detailed and horrifying, in the sense with which competitive food manufacturers (think Kraft, Kelloggs, Nestle, General Foods, and the rest) have fought for “mouth share” and lower costs, with each success putting more people closer to death.

Although I can hardly claim to have grown up with non-processed foods in the 1970s, I can easily say that these foods have gotten more and more dangerous for our health with each decade. (This book made me swear off “grocery-store cookies” — I was already off candy, soda and most prepared meals — as a risk to my daily well-being and long-term health.)

Perhaps none of these observations surprise you, and perhaps you also cook all of your meals, but the vast majority of Americans — as well as an increasing share of humans rich enough to “pay for convenience and taste” are not, and these people are suffering rom obesity, hypertension, diabetes, and other “rich world” diseases. Note that they are not suffering or dying from being rich — they are dying from a food-industrial complex that has — with help from the US Department of Agriculture — flooded the market with worse foods, in larger quantities, than was the case in the 1950s.

What changed?

Women’s liberation has brought great good to the world, but it was also used as an excuse to make “food” that was more convenient than healthy.

Why didn’t these busy career moms just read the label? The USDA and food manufacturers did everything they could to hide ingredients (using many names for sugar), portions (a “single serving” of 3 chips out of a bag), and implications (scientists questioning health consequences for a fee).

So this is NOT the consumers’ fault, and it is definitely a case of market failure working together with government failure.

Not-so-fun facts:

  1. Big Food invented Betty Crocker and sponsored “baking with Fritos” type contests to push their products while killing the “cooking from scratch” skills that home economics teachers used to give.
  2. Almost every product has gotten less healthy over time — sugar added to cornflakes, soda that got supersized, adding fat inside of goods (think dry croissant with the same fat) to get us to eat more, etc.
  3. Lots of unhealthy foods (hotdogs, bologna) expanded sales by repackaging (Lunchables)
  4. Some candy bars are healthier than breakfast cereals (!)
  5. The soda industry spends $700 million a year on advertising soda; Americans spend more than $90 billion a year on treating obesity.
  6. Yes, they advertised to kids — all the time — but “heavy users” are the most profitable. So the fat and unhealthy get fatter and unhealthier.
  7. Yes, there are direct parallels between these foods and cigarettes and drugs. It’s not just “cast doubt on the research strategies,” but also physical addiction (it only takes a few weeks to wean yourself off excess sugar and salt). These parallels not accidental: Phillip Morris owns General Foods and Kraft.
  8. The industry routinely switches from one substance that people are trying to avoid to another that might be just as unhealthy — or worse, e.g., loading more sugar into “low fat” cookies.
  9. Cargill is a huge food processor, selling 30 types of salt, for example. They also bought a company that puts a band on your stomach — so they are making money from making a problem, then “fixing” it.
  10. We hit a limit with sugar and salt but not with fat.
  11. Most of the experts and executives that Moss interviewed for the book do not eat the foods they have investigated or that their companies sell.
  12. Kraft cheese used to be made from cow milk; now it’s mostly chemicals and “natural cheeze flavor” 🙁
  13. The beef industry — coordinated by the USDA — spends $2 billion per year selling America on more beef. The USDA’s nutrition center spends $6.5 million per year trying to get Americans to eat healthier. That’s a 500-to-1 edge for bad choices — and I’m not even counting advertising for sugar and salt.
  14. The USDA spent $111 million on “pink slime” beef (a highly processed product taken from the parts of a cow that nobody ever ate) to be served at public school lunches. The slimy beef was 1.5 cents/pound cheaper, so the government saved $1.4 million while dumping industry slop on kids’ plates.
  15. Offering a “healthy alternative” next to the traditional product increases sales of the latter (!), since people buy a bit of the healthy, then reward themselves by doubling down on the crap.
  16. The industry has pushed — and succeeded — at getting people to eat and drink everywhere, all the time. “Don’t spoil your appetite” has turned into “see you at the morgue” (42 percent of Americans are obese).
  17. Potatoes have natural sugars that are “highlighted” by frying, which is why people over-eat potato chips.
  18. Big issue: The newest weight loss drugs do seem to reduce appetite and help with weight loss, but they cost about $10,000 per year. The food industry will surely try to make its offer more attractive, to maintain sales, which will unhelpful for the people on those drugs but catastrophic for the people who are not on them!

What should “we” do to address the slow suicide on our plates? More information does not help. Taxes on sugar, salt and fat can be useful. But the only real solution is industry-wide regulation to ban or limit substances, so that manufacturers are not tempted to add more sugar and take sales from rivals. Will Fox news (with help from sponsors) decry the “nanny state”? Yes — but a nanny who keeps you alive is better than the baby-sitter who kills you while you sleep.

I give this book FIVE STARS. Anyone interested in what they eat, misbehaving big business and government corruption should read this.

Here are all my reviews.

Addendum (7 May 2024): I just ate a traditional shortbread (cookie), which has an ideal mix of sugar, salt and fat. That’s the taste profile that all these industrial chemists are aiming for, in their processed, cheap-as-fuck “foods”.

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

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