Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us (A Review)

Salt, sugar, fat. It’s hard to picture it now, but 50 years ago, each of these was just another – albeit more potentially delicious – ingredient in the average kitchen. In more recent years,  they’ve lived at the center of a mighty food battle waged between food industry marketers and “good food” advocates. Given Americans’ passion for maintaining their right to consumer choice – and the tendency of industry front groups to exploit that passion – it’s no surprise that attempts to curb consumption of this trio (via bans on trans fats and Big Gulps or even through calorie counts posted on menus) would be a recipe for controversy.

Enter Michael Moss, whose book does something a little different.  In Salt Sugar Fat, Moss – whose 2010 investigative look at the hamburger won him a Pulitzer – takes a deep dive into the marketing and science of junk food, and in doing so exposes some of the nasty and difficult truths behind it. Someone is being had here, and he’s determined to suss out who, and by whom.

As I read the book, I kept thinking about the common parable of the boiling frog. To wit, incremental change adds up, and if you’re not paying attention, you might one day realize you’re being boiled alive. Let’s say we start this story with fast food as a treat, and Twinkies, Doritos or Dr. Peppers are an occasional indulgence. But these are the moneymakers of the food industry, which wants to keep growing its profits, so it uses science to pinpoint just how much more salt, sugar and fat – and in what combinations – will make their products irresistible. Market them as solutions for busy moms (a la Lunchables and Gogurt) or a novelty (see Prego’s chunky spaghetti sauce, then the first of its kind) or a cherished intergenerational ritual (dunk those Oreos). Results: sky-high profits. And ballooning waistlines.

Moss shows that for the industry pros, the explicit goal is to create tenaciously loyal customers who will continue to consume more and more of their product, generating more profits. Of course, we’re not talking about an addiction problem for some small segment of the population; Americans’ epidemic obesity is evidence of Big Food’s success in hooking us on the junk.

There are great anecdotes and case studies in this book; see the New York Times Magazine excerpt or Moss’ recent Daily Show appearance for some. Here’s one of my favorites. Kraft decided to actually do the right thing and reduce salt, sugar and fat in their product lines. This decision was made, no less, after careful study and critique of their own marketing schemes. Yay Kraft, right?

Until the quarterly numbers rolled in. They were down, and it wasn’t just the new products that were failing to sell – neither were old favorites like Philadelphia Cream Cheese. At that point, analysts from Morgan Stanley and Prudential complained that Kraft was “underperforming” and chastened the company that obesity prevention did nothing for their fiscal bottom line. (I know, it’s hard to imagine Wall Street taking such an interest in our food.)

Kraft solved the problem generally by putting the bad stuff back into its products, and hit on a genius marketing move to employ the popular Food Network personality and by-her-bootstraps heroine Paula Deen to run a “Real Women of Philadelphia” recipe contest using the cream cheese. On YouTube, Deen invited “her girls” to submit a video demonstrating their own recipes for the chance to win a trip to hang out together, $25,000 and credit on a cookbook. (If you’re not familiar, you need to watch one of Deen’s contest videos.) And oh how sales subsequently soared!

Moss indicts Big Food for using science to refine products, capitalizing on the “bliss points” of sugar or the “mouthfeel” of fat, for aggressively marketing products targeted to specific audiences and in short, for privileging profit over any other consideration while doing business. Lest we ignore another of the book’s villains (hi, Wall Street), Big Food was aided and abetted plenty by the US government, in the form of subsidies, toothless or completely nonexistent regulation and nutritional standards, and good old-fashioned gifts to the industry. (For example, meat can be labeled “lean” even if the cut in question has 30 percent fat, or is otherwise higher than the government standard for all other foods, 10 percent.) Note he does not do so by advocating for a so-called “nanny state” or by straight-up banning anything; rather, this book is another illustrating how complex our societal problems and relationships are with our food system. As such, there are no simple solutions recommended here.

If you’d like more information or resources about your food choices – and why it’s ok if you’re not perfectly organic and sustainable 100 percent of the time – check out Sustainable Table's In the Kitchen section. Hungry for some good news about food? Check out our Real Food Right Now series here on Ecocentric.