We Are What We Eat, Unfortunately

Book Review: "Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us," by Michael Moss.

It will come as no surprise to Frito-Lay that, on many occasions, I have eaten a 1 7/8 ounce bag of its Lay’s classic potato chips less than 15 minutes after finishing dinner.

I know this behavior is wrong and perhaps even a little twisted, based on the look my wife gives me as I pile the snack food on top of what we both assumed was a full meal.

But I can’t help myself. And now I know why, thanks to Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, by Michael Moss. SSF_cover506x768

“[It] starts with the coating of salt, which the tongue hits first, but there is much more inside the chip. They are loaded with fat, which gives them most of their calories. It also delivers the sensation called mouthfeel the moment they are chewed. As food scientists know, fat in the mouth is like oil on the hand; it is a marvelous sensation, which the brain rewards with instant feelings of pleasure.”

And it doesn’t stop there. “Potato chips are loaded with sugar,” Moss writes; not the kind we dump in coffee, but glucose, a carbohydrate found in the starch in potatoes. Quoting an associate professor at Harvard:

“The starch…causes the glucose levels in the blood to spike, and this is a concern, in relation to obesity.”

So it’s not my fault. The salt, sugar and fat made me do it.

In this I am not alone. The food industry — using chemicals, psychology and marketing — has turned all of us into slaves to thousands of products that are basically delivery systems for unhealthy levels of salt, sugar and fat. No surprise, then, that America is the most obese country in the world. Millions more have diabetes, high levels of cholesterol and heart disease.

Moss writes that this all started in the early 1950s because of two forces: consumers who wanted to spend more time making money, and less time preparing meals; and food manufacturers looking for ways to make money to meet the demand for what we now call convenience foods.

The foot soldiers in this battle for the American taste buds are chemists, more commonly known as “food technicians,” or “food engineers.” From their labs have come such concoctions as Tang, Cheetos, and S’mores, cookies that each contain five teaspoons of sugar.

Food manufacturers use the tools of psychology “to plot what industry insiders call the ‘bliss point,’ or the precise amount of sugar or fat or salt that will send consumers over the moon.”

Marketing is the other tool that pushed more and more processed food into our homes. Lunchables, were created by Oscar Mayer to stem the drop in bologna sales. Sales of the little trays now approach $1 billion annually.

The usual suspects are raked over the coals in this expose for inducing consumes to crave foods that are really not good for us, including Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Campbell Soup Company, General Foods, Kellogg, Kraft Foods, Nestle, Oscar Mayer and the giant Cargill, which supplies food manufacturers with salt, sugar and salt.

“As it turns out,” Moss writes, “the manufacturers of processed foods have been creating a desire for salt where none existed before.” Cheese — “the fattest fat-based products” — is dumped into far too many foods, according to Moss.

Moss also takes aim at the U.S. government, especially the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He claims they are too close to the food industry and not doing enough to protect consumers from the ravages of convenience foods.

Moss admits that reducing our intake of salt, sugar and fat is difficult.

Sugar keeps bread from getting stale and yields “cereal that is toasty-brown and fluffy.”  It also adds bulk and texture to foods.

Salt “makes sugar taste sweeter. It adds crunch to crackers and frozen waffles. It delays spoilage so that the products can sit longer on the shelf. And…it masks the otherwise bitter or dull taste that hounds so many processed foods before salt is added.”

Fat “turns listless chips into crunchy marvels…drab lunch meat into savory delicatessen.” Plus, “It can mask and convey other flavors in foods, all at the same time.”

So what are we to do? “Only we can save us,” Moss proclaims.

“They [the food industry] might have salt, sugar, and fat on their side, but we, ultimately, have the power to make choices. After all, we decide what to buy. We decide how much to eat.”

Apparently, we don’t. The convenience-loving American consumer seems to be no match to the magic of food chemists, psychological manipulation and million-dollar marketing budgets. As a former Pillsbury executive is quoted in the book:

“We’re hooked on inexpensive food.”

Pass me the chips.

 

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James E. Kenyon

James is the publisher and editor of Page One Post. He was a newspaper reporter in Detroit and Norfolk, VA, before working in the corporate communications departments at a number of Michigan companies. His last stint was 18 years at Chrysler Corporation, where he handled media relations, product and marketing PR and speech writing. He retired from Chrysler in 2007. He enjoys listening to jazz, good cigars and bourbon Manhattans, often at the same time. He and his partner, Melba, live in Detroit's Rosedale Park neighborhood.