Book Review: Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us By Michael Moss

Reviewed by Marcia Greenblum, MS, RD, IFIC Foundation

If you could travel back in time to the 1970s, no doubt you would be shocked at the limited variety of foods offered at your local grocery store. Lettuce was iceberg period; spinach was usually found in a can and bread was white, as were pasta and rice. In his book, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, author Michael Moss reflects upon the motivations and practices by the food industry which have transformed the American food supply.

There are many perspectives one can take regarding the technological changes which have led to our modern food supply. Michael Moss chooses the perspective that corporate innovation which leads to more appealing food, is on a path to compromising public health.  Moss uses interviews with former corporate employees to paint a picture of “deliberate and calculating” corporate intentions. Moss, a Pulitzer Prize winning writer, selects presentations from scientists that support his cause and visits production plants around the globe that provide the ingredients (salt, sugar and fat) which Mr. Moss alleges are directly associated with today’s epidemic of health crises, including obesity, heart disease and diabetes.

Part One: Sugar

This chapter introduces readers to an industry pioneer, who for more than three decades, worked to turn losing products into winners. His market research suggested that people are driven to eat by factors other than hunger including taste, aroma, appearance, texture and emotional need. This revelatory insight led to the development of a popular carbonated beverage, for example. The history of sweetened breakfast cereal is also offered as an example of consumer manipulation.  These product developments, however, could be viewed within the context of the consumer’s changing lifestyle where convenience and quick satisfaction are high priorities and are sought out with consumers’ limited dollars.

Part Two: Fat

Moss details food industry research that showed adding fat to products made them more attractive to consumers, which he connects to industry manipulation of the public in their formulation of products. He contends that the food industry used research, which showed that a combination of fats and sugar is even more appealing and palatable than either nutrient alone, to add a considerable amount of calories

to the public’s collective diet while increasing profit. Again the change in society’s lifestyle, less physical activity and more screen time, are an essential backdrop to be considered when viewing increased health risks.

Part Three: Salt

People require salt to live, and the evidence that salt is a determinant of heart disease is still debatable. Sodium occurs naturally in most foods, although too much sodium in the diet may lead to high blood pressure in some individuals; according to the Mayo Clinic, for most adults, there’s often no identifiable cause of high blood pressure (( However, Mr. Moss views the use of salt to improve food acceptability as another instance of unscrupulous practices by the food industry. The practice of enhancing fat and sugar containing foods with salt to increase palatability and shelf life could also be viewed in the context of the food industry responding to public demand. Moss illustrates this by offering an example of a soup company which attempted to reduce the salt content of a successful product. When the product sales dropped, forcing the company to return some salt to maintain profitability, a clear message was delivered to the company regarding the consumer’s commitment to taste in “good for you foods”. More recently the food industry, having experienced slow sales of sodium reduced products, has begun to diminish sodium content of their products slowly and without labeling them as “reduced sodium” to stealthily help the consumer achieve their dietary goals.

In summary, Mr. Moss could have been more balanced with his analysis of how technology has changed the food supply. Little insight is offered explaining why food companies would want to harm the consumer, the lifeblood of their business. The other perspective that appears to be lacking in “Salt Sugar Fat”, is an appreciation of the role the consumer plays in shaping the marketplace. Moss points out that our bodies are hard wired to crave sweets and indicts the food industry for creating foods that meet that demand. However, the food industry is also the creator of diet products that provide a sweet taste as an alternative to sugar, which is especially important for diabetics and weight conscious individuals. Mr. Moss doesn’t explain why the idea of seeking and employing flavor innovation (referred to as the “bliss point” in the book) where food is produced to “send consumers over the moon” is any different than nature’s attempt to target animals with colors, scents and textures that will attract “consumers” and thereby release pollen, seeds and pits for furthering the next generation of plants, as explained by Michael Pollan, in his book “The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World”. Unlike animals, man has the ability to choose what food he consumes, and when the consumer communicates a demand for more healthful food, the food industry provides that choice.