Salt Sugar Fat

I’m reading this book now, and I cannot put it down.

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(If you click the pic you can buy it for your Kindle–Image credit: Amazon).

It’s creating all sorts of buzz in the “food revolution” world. I first heard about it when I watched a video posted on some sight (can’t remember where or find it now) last week in which Michael Moss and Michael Pollan went to a grocery store to buy what they needed to make a healthy meal. In case you’ve been living under a rock, Michael Pollan is promoting his own new book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation.

And, Wednesday night, Michael Moss was on The Splendid Table talking about his book. Here’s a link to the story.

It’s amazing stuff, I tell ya. Food conglomerates scrutinize every single purchase consumers make at the grocery store. It’s amazing to me that in an office building in America somewhere right now, a group of marketing experts and food technicians is thinking about ways to manipulate ME into buying their products.

For instance, you probably remember the ad campaign by Kellogg’s Frosted Mini Wheats “Keeps ’em full, keeps ’em focused”? In the earliest versions of the ad, a clinical study was cited that said a child’s attention and focus was improved 20% after eating a breakfast of Frosted Mini Wheats. Only problem was, it wasn’t exactly a “clinical” study, and the context in which the message was delivered was intentionally misleading. Well, the FTC got wind of the ad, but by the time the ad was pulled by Kellogg’s (after  the FTC stepped in), the damage was done and the ad was reaching the end of it’s run anyway. Parents surveyed after the ad was pulled said they really believed their child’s attention would improve 20% if they fed them Frosted Mini Wheats for breakfast.

The section on fat talks extensively about the history of cheese making in the United States, specifically mass production of cheese that is mostly what’s in the grocery store. I think of myself as a savvy shopper–I read nutrition facts and ingredients on labels of food that I buy. But after I read the chapter about fat and cheese, I was horrified to find “cheese food” in tiny letters on the label of the block of cheese I bought last time I was at the grocery store. Most of what’s sold is “cheese food” because it is legally processed cheese, and must be labeled as such–even if it is in teeny tiny font.

Make no mistake, food processing is a very scientific and technical endeavor. Products are vetted and studied and researched for months to make sure that consumers will clamor to buy them. And one of the most powerful siren songs that a product has is its formulation with salt, sugar and fat. Researchers have conducted brain scans that show parts of our brain “lighting up” when we eat sugar in the same ways that the brain of a drug addict lights up when drugs are taken. These products are specifically designed and manufactured to make us want more and more.

The book is part marketing, part science, neither of which I have a background in. But I’m finding it easy to follow along with. Moss does a good job of putting it all out in lay terms. It has definitely opened my eyes to the messages being conveyed on TV, and now through social media from food companies. It makes me sad and mad all at the same time that we have let the food industry get such a stranglehold on something that is such an intimate part of every person’s everyday life.

Don’t get me wrong–I’m all for a free market economy and allowing businesses to make money selling what consumers want. These food conglomerates are accountable to shareholders, and their mission is to make money. But somewhere along the way, the deck got stacked against the average consumer. It’s very difficult and tricky to discern a food label, and that’s by design. If consumers really knew what these products were made of, far fewer would buy them.

The book touches on our country’s obesity epidemic in more than passing terms, but it’s not the overall theme. A lot of critics of the kinds of ideas presented in the book like to use words like “nanny state” and point to the fact that it’s a free country and people should be able to eat whatever they damn well please. This is true, but the point that is missed is that WE are all literally paying for the poor diet decisions of millions of Americans. We pay taxes to support the Medicaid and Medicare programs, where BILLIONS are spent annually on obesity-related health care. And as patients, we pay higher premiums and higher costs for all care, as the costs associated with obesity are spread across the pool.

The food conglomerates have ignored the rally cry of public health officials that Americans need to reduce the amounts of salt, sugar and fat in their diets. But who can blame them? Have you ever tasted fat free cheese? Those products don’t sell well, and these companies are in the business of selling products.

Without pointing fingers too much, I think the take away from the book is that as consumers, we need to be more diligent and discriminating in what we feed ourselves and our families. Of course, this brings up another tangled mess–hunger in our country. Too many people in this country don’t know where their next meal will come from, and cannot afford to be picky eaters.

One thing is for sure, I am going to read cheese labels thoroughly before I buy any more cheese at the grocery store.

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