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.
As part of his research, Moss spoke to a number of food scientists, learning how sophisticated they are in formulating their products to maximize appeal. For instance, they do extensive testing to determine a food's "bliss point," the "precise amount of sweetness – no more, no less – that makes food and drink most enjoyable." Similar testing is done with fat, whose history here is fascinating. During the 1980s, the popularity of whole milk plunged. As skim and reduced-fat milks rose in popularity, the extracted milkfat began to pile up. The dairy industry realized it could convert that excess fat into cheese, which is no longer enjoyed primarily on its own but as an often secondary ingredient tucked away in processed food. (The amount of cheese Americans eat, on average, per year has tripled since 1970, from eleven pounds to thirty-three pounds.) Most of the unhealthy saturated fats ingested in the U.S. come not from cookies and ice cream but from cheese and beef, which, because their industries are government subsidized, are actually promoted to Americans despite their clear risks: as recently as 2010 a USDA guide recommended Americans increase their cheese consumption.
Moss credits companies for occasional attempts to improve their products' nutritional profiles. The example of Kraft is particularly interesting, as tobacco behemoth Philip Morris owned the company until 2007; the tobacco execs were experienced in dealing with public health concerns, warning the food execs that salt, sugar, and fat might one day cost their industry as much as nicotine had cost Big Tobacco. Still, former Philip Morris CEO Geoffrey Bible, speaking of these ingredients, told Moss, "Well, that's what the consumer wants, and we're not putting a gun to their head to eat it.... If we give them less, they'll buy less, and the competitor will get our market. So you're sort of trapped." Moss corroborates the sense of corporate dilemma, pointing out that when Kraft "down-formulated" some of its products as part of a 2003 anti-obesity initiative, rivals muscled in with sweeter, saltier, fattier products and cut into their market share, until Kraft responded in kind.
Giving the people what they want: you can tell by the word "hooked" in Moss's subtitle that he doesn't quite buy it. (The book is peppered with references to the addictive powers of processed food, some of which are a bit overheated.) But as the response to New York's proposed soda ban demonstrates, many people aren't ready for what they derisively call the "nanny state" to step in; meanwhile, companies have a way of making consumers feel empowered by the number of choices they have in the grocery aisles, as unwholesome and ultimately narrow as they may be. Notably, Bible supports federal limits on salt, sugar, and fat, which would force the entire industry to make adjustments across the board without having to worry about the competition.
There are thorny issues of class at play here, and unfortunately Moss explores them only briefly at the end of the book. In many poor neighborhoods, convenience stores are abundant while supermarkets are rare. What's more, processed foods are significantly cheaper than fresh, healthier foods. These are big problems that Moss just touches on, concluding simply by urging consumers to educate themselves. He writes, "They may have salt, sugar, and fat on their side, but we, ultimately, have the power to make choices." As he is well aware, though, some people have more choices than others: it's telling that many of the wealthy food executives Moss spoke to about their products wouldn't dream of eating the stuff themselves.
Barbara Spindel has covered books for Time Out New York, Newsweek.com, Details, and Spin. She holds a PhD in American Studies.