Salt Sugar Fat
Michael Moss explores how food companies market all of the above to the American public.
Reviewed by Barbara Spindel for Barnes & Noble ReviewSkip to next paragraph
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The demise – at least for now – of New York mayor Michael Bloomberg's large-soda ban captures the dilemmas involved in addressing our nation's obesity crisis. The measure, which was struck down by a state judge just as Michael Moss's Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us was published, would have prohibited the sale of sugary drinks in containers larger than sixteen ounces at restaurants, theaters, and stadiums. Bloomberg defended the ban, which was passed by the city's Board of Health, by arguing that soda and other sugary drinks are a leading cause of obesity. Meanwhile, beverage industry groups accused the government of trampling on consumers' rights, a view apparently shared by the slight majority of New Yorkers who, according to polls, oppose any limits on their prodigious soda habits. The judge, in blocking the measure, called it "arbitrary and capricious."
I wonder whether the judge might have been tempted to rule differently had he read "Salt Sugar Fat" first. (One of Moss's chapters covers soda, and it's framed by the remarkable story of Jeffrey Dunn, a former higher-up at Coca-Cola who is now "doing penance" by marketing baby carrots to kids.) The author's meticulous examination of the processed food industry is alarming, and it could have the potential to be galvanizing were there any clear way out of our salty, sugary, fatty mess. It's dispiriting to finish the book feeling that solutions are elusive, but Moss, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter for The New York Times, does an excellent job of explaining how unhealthy processed food, originally "imagined as occasional fare," came to completely dominate the American diet.
Our family structures have changed, of course, with more women working outside of the home, more single-parent households, and, as a result, less time for home cooking. In the 1970s, market researchers began to find that for consumers, convenience was key, and executives at some of the food companies Moss spoke to still rationalize that they are giving the people what they want: inexpensive, easy sustenance. What's problematic is how dependent that sustenance is on the ingredients of Moss's title, from sugary breakfast cereals to Oscar Meyer's meat- and cheese-based Lunchables to frozen microwavable Hot Pockets, which contain more than 100 ingredients and close to a day's recommended limits of saturated fat and salt. Indeed, as the processed food industry has expanded, salt, sugar, and fat have become its three pillars, cheap components that serve many other functions beyond the obvious ones: adding bulk to food, stimulating overeating, and covering up the tastes of chemical additives, to name a few.