Rest Day Book Review: Salt, Sugar, Fat

March 7, 2014

Friday Rest Day Book Review!!! Today’s book is Salt Sugar Fat by Michael Moss, 2014, 480 pages.

salt_sugar_fat_book_cover

I couldn’t wait to get my hands on this book when I heard about it. Michael Moss won the Pulitzer Prize for this book, and I can see why – it’s a great book! It’s very long, but I read it in about a weekend because I had a hard time putting it down. A big part of this is Moss’ writing style, which is pretty engaging for most of the book.

Salt Sugar Fat is essentially about the processed food industry. Moss describes how companies design food specifically to be more appealing to us, so we buy (and eat) more. It all comes down to the almighty dollar! He breaks the book down into the three sections you would expect – Salt, Sugar and Fat – and then within each one tackles various food products. It is not a cookbook or diet book, and you won’t learn much about “healthy eating” specifically. But you will learn A TON about companies that make foods, and you’ll probably never look at certain processed foods the same way.

For example, one the most captivating parts of the book was his detailing of sugar, and how scientists have discovered “bliss points.” This point corresponds to a certain – very high – level of sugar in a product that makes you want to buy more. Once food scientists discovered what most people’s “bliss point” was, they started modifying foods to have that specific amount of sugar. In particular, cereals are often manipulated to have that level of sugar content, as much as 75% sugar. If companies try to reduce the level of sugar, the cereal sales plummet, so they fight any regulation or attempt to reduce the content of their cereals.

I personally found his discussion of cheese to be interesting as well. Cheese used to be a food consumed on its own, in limited quantities, usually for dessert or as an appetizer. But since it is high in both fat and salt, food companies found that adding it to foods made them more tasty and they sold more products. (He ties this in with the fact that you have no “bliss point for fat – we just want more and more of it). In addition, there are many government subsidies for cheese and dairy products. So cheese began to be used as an ingredient in foods, rather and a food eaten on its own. As a result, cheese consumption has tripled in only a few decades. Given that cheese is not one of the most healthy foods for you, you can see where this is not a good thing for most people.

Although I don’t have the space to review them, his histories of the products Lunchables and Dr. Pepper were also fascinating. Another fun part was when he described that salted, fried potatoes – like French fries and potato chips – are a prime example of this trinity of foods we love: the potatoes are carbohydrates and thus converted to sugar, fried in fat and then salted. This is probably why these products are so popular, eh?

I had two personal criticisms of the book. The first is that it is that, much like many books on topics about industries, you start to feel helpless at times, and/or have guilt if you eat processed foods at all. And he doesn’t really offer a solution to us. There’s no way to avoid eating some processed foods, and sometimes reading the guidelines the government puts out about recommended daily salt and sugar intake sound impossible to meet. The second is that he does spend a fair amount of time talking about the politics of the food industry. It’s interesting stuff, but I’m not a very political person. I just personally found the parts of the book talking about the science of taste more interesting than the parts where he talks about battles between executives and regulators.

But to be fair, he couldn’t have avoided those topics in a book like this. And despite what I just wrote, I never got the impression that Moss was a “hater” of any of the ingredients – just some of the particular products. For example, he readily talks about tasting bread made without salt, and how awful it tasted. We need Salt, Fat, and Sugar in our diets. What the book really does is help you gain a perspective of how companies have manipulated these ingredients in our foods to make money, with total disregard for our health. It will make you a more skeptical and probably better/healthier consumer. And it’s fascinating! Really!

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