Before I started this book last month, I already knew the basics of what I was about to read. After all, we all know the problem with processed foods. It is all in the name. Processed. There is nothing natural about them.
However, I purchased the paperback version of this book instead of the electronic version for my Kindle with the idea that I would share it with other people after I had finished reading it. However, I recommend that you purchase the hard cover version. It is only $3 more and will hold up better if you plan on passing it around.
And along those lines, I would like to give you my thoughts on the book and the subject in general.
What I would like to do with this review is give you a general overview about how the book is researched and presented rather than load you with scientific studies about how sugar, salt and fat are bad for you. You already know that.
When you read a book like this about the history of anything, particularly public health issues like food and cigarettes, it is hard not to look at the parties involved as villains. The decisions that these people and the government made over the last century are directly related to the public health crisis we are experiencing in this country. Obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer are at near epidemic levels and it can all be traced back to changes in the American diet that begin after World War II.
There were certain companies, and certain individuals within those companies, that drove this change more than others. Their legacies are not something to be proud of, although many still live in denial from that era. After all, they only gave the consumer what they wanted.
And to a certain extent they are right. No one forced mothers to start feeding their children cereals and lunches loaded with salt, sugar or fat beginning in the 1950s. No one forced us into the giant portions sizes of sodas and foods we now think of as normal. So in that respect, no one person is at fault for the processed food revolution, and yet we are all at fault to a certain extent.
The major food companies do deserve to be shamed and this book does a great job of doing that without seeming vindictive or snarky. The story tells itself and the evidence is there for everyone to judge.
So keep that in mind as you read this review and hopefully, the actual book by Michael Moss. It is well-researched and weaves a story that is easy to follow which made it a New York Times Best Seller when it was published in February of 2013.
If I had to summarize the book it would be this. Salt, sugar and fat drive consumption of foods by adding flavor to all foods. Not only are we all addicted to them, but the food companies are addicted to selling it to us and they like us, are having trouble breaking the addiction.
We all know that sugar is bad for the body. There is no big revelation in this book about that, Credit: Opensourcehowever the book goes through a detailed history of how it came to be in our diets. How is it that everything from breakfast cereal to ketchup to pickles are loaded with sugar, or its later, cheaper replacement, high fructose corn syrup?
The author describes how food scientists discovered in the 40s that there was a certain combination of sugar that created what they called the bliss point. Too much or too less would throw off the craving for it.
They tested their ideas with endless blind taste tests and small market releases before going nationwide with their products.
They discovered that while humans like a sweet taste, it is only up to a certain point, and then we are turned off by it. It becomes overwhelming. Think of something that you have eaten that is really rich and sweet. At first it might seem appealing, but you can’t eat an entire cake or pie. One or two slices are enough at one sitting, and then you are turned off by its sweetness.
They theorized that this was more than likely related to our evolution. That we instinctively seek out different types of flavors and foods in order to get all of the nutrients we need.
So everything they did from that point forward was to hook us with sugar, but only up to a certain point. Even though we may like something, our taste buds will steer us away from it in time, particularly rich foods.
They would use the bliss point research to tweak their recipes with everything from salad dressings, to colas, to cereals and daily sugar intake surged. Everything you see in the grocery store outside of the produce section has gone through extensive testing and optimized toward our palates.
To reinforce the point, Moss describes in detail how the Cereal Wars begin. The major food companies, Post, Kellogg and General Foods, started out with regular cereal, then slowly begin to add sugar. The more sugar that was added, the more sales surge, so like airlines matching lower fares, the other companies had to add more and more sugar to their products to compete.
The situation snowballed until we had grocery stores shelves filled with cereals called Sugar Frosted Flakes and Sugar Smacks. Decades later, when the companies started to catch some heat from consumer advocates in the 1970s, they simply dropped the “Sugar”, but only from the name on the box.
Worse, these were intentionally marketed toward kids and overworked moms. This era Credit: Opensourcecoincided with more and more women working outside the home, so they wanted convenience to get the kids fed before everyone rushed out for school and work.
The story of breakfast cereal is just one example of how the American diet was hijacked by the processed food makers. Like cigarette makers at the time, no one really cared what all of that added sugar might be doing to people’s health. From the corporate perspective, it was all about profits and growth. From the parents perspective, it was all about convenience. The "prepared from scratch" family meal was becoming a thing of the past as was a healthy breakfast.
Not only does the book go into detail about the cereal wars that went on for decades, it also delves into the Cola Wars between Pepsi and Coke throughout the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s. Moss points out that even though the companies were beating each other up in ads, their sales continued to grow.
There were no real losers in the Cola Wars,except the American public, especially children who are the targets for most of this poison.
And even when the Federal government tried to enforce food standards on schools, they were thwarted by politicians and other misguided adults.
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Fat Has No Bliss Point
Rather, if it does, it is so high that to measure it is a waste of time. We can consume much greater amounts of fat than sugar before we are turned off by it. Our bodies are engineered by thousands of years of evolution to seek out fat to get us through the lean years. It is gold to our brains and we traditionally got this energy food through healthy fats and oils.
Whenever the industry would catch heat from government or consumer groups, or the changing trends in the American diet would affect their sales of any given product, they would respond over and over again by tweaking their main three ingredients, fat, salt and sugar.
Through their research they discovered that fat could be added up to very high levels within processed foods without affecting taste or appetite for the product.
But during the 80s, fat became the enemy and it led to a whole host of fat-free products from cookies to salad dressings.
However, whenever they would decrease the amount of fat, they would simply add more salt and sugar. So a product might have been fat-free such as cheese, but they simply added more salt or sugar to compensate for the loss of taste.
These revised fat-free products would then be marketed with vague descriptions like "all natural," "contains whole grains," "contains real fruit juice” and "lean” which was meaningless babble.
One of the more memorable products to gain national attention in the early 90s was the fat-free Snackwell craze. These new cookies were fat-free so you could eat all you wanted, right?
Well, that is what some people thought, but Nabisco simply removed the fat and upped the other ingredients. The American public fell for it. For a while, they were so popular, you could not find them on the store shelves.
This kind of tinkering went on for decades, and still does, for every single product they release.
And I cannot emphasize enough how they have these formulas down to a science. They use terms like “mouth feel” and “heavy users”.
And not surprising, just like the cigarette companies in the 50s and 60s, throughout the 20th century, they repeatedly brought out counter studies to refute the claims made by government and consumer groups about the unhealthy nature of their products.
In fact, you may or may not know this but Philip Morris bought General Foods in 1985 to try to diversify out of their death business, but some of the foods they produce are no better than the cigarettes they make.
The book goes into detail about the development of Lunchables by Oscar Meyer, owned by Kraft, which is a General Foods/Philip Morris company. It is stunning the amount of reach this company has within our homes. Credit: mjpyro
The amount of fat, salt and a whole host of other chemicals that is contained in those little white Lunchables trays that are served to kids by stressed out moms borders on criminal. The story of how they came to be and how they were marketed is worth the price of the book alone.
If there is one thing that I take away from this book it is that I am cutting my cheese intake to almost nothing. The amount of saturated fat in cheese is astonishing and if they try to lower the sodium or fat level, it loses its flavor altogether.
The author goes into great detail about the struggles the dairy industry went through in the early 80s when Americans were drinking less milk and the government cut dairy farmers subsidies. He details how Kraft and other companies in the cheese industry tried to deal with the glut of cheese by looking for new ways to get more cheese into our diet. They diversified their processed foods adding cheese to just about every thing. Even macaroni and cheese became "cheesier".
The amount of cheese that the average American consumed tripled from 1970 to 2000. The processed food industry invented new recipes and combined new products all with one thing in common, cheese. And as their profits soared, Americans ate more and more cheese and got fatter. The average adult male weighed 166 pounds in 1960. By 2002, the average adult male in America weighed 191 pounds.
Facts About Salt
Too much salt in our diet leads to water retention, bloating and high blood pressure. Studies done in the early 90s showed that only 6% of the average American's salt came from the salt shaker on the dinner table.
So where was it all coming from?
The giant food corporations are addicted to salt. Their reliance on salt has gotten to the point where many plead with regulators that they cannot make certain processed foods without putting massive amounts inside it for various reasons. It's not just for taste, salt actually provides texture to bread and cookies and is one of many items used as preservatives that allow foods to sit on shelves for months or years.
As humans, we are born with a taste for sugar. But as Moss points out, that does not apply to salt. Tests on newborns have proven this to be the case, however, most disturbing, they can be taught to like it through repeated exposure which is what happens as soon as a child stops eating baby food.
Every time regulators try to set limits on certain types of food, even when the limits are voluntary, the food giants only offer token percentage drops, and only in their least popular and least profitable products. They aren't touching their Oreos, Frosted Flakes or Campbell's Chicken Noodle Soup.
To a certain extent, they have a valid reason not to lower sodium content because when they reduce the amounts of salt in most of their products, they lose all of their flavor and most look nothing like the food we recognize today. Various companies interviewed by Moss prepared special versions of their products for him with just half the sodium as normal and he confirmed that most looked weird and tasted terrible.
But that is what salt does. It adds flavor to bland food. Think about that for a second. Most dry, carbohydrate, grain-based foods are tasteless or taste like cardboard at best. That's why we put peanut butter on crackers, cheese sauce with macaroni, salt and other flavors on potato chips.
Imagine sitting down and eating some spaghetti noodles without a rich sugar, salt and fat filled meat sauce from Ragu. People complain that vegetables like broccoli and spinach have no taste and are boring, but that is because their taste receptors are way out of sync after years of eating processed foods. Natural foods actually have a lot of flavor, we just have to reset our taste buds back to what they used before the processed food revolution.
Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us
I did not touch on half of the interesting stories in this book. If you are interested in the history of the food industry and food science in the United States, read this book.
Actually, the title of this book should be "How the Food Giants Hooked Us and Themselves". They are caught in a profit trap. If they try to do the right thing to reduce their dependence on their three pillars, their profits drop and Wall Street pounds them since all of the major players are publicly traded companies. Then heads roll and someone is brought in to appease the profit Gods at the expense of us all.
I think the part of this book that was the most disturbing to me was how the food giants activelyCredit: mjpyro go after children, hooking them at an early age. Why are the Flintstones on a box of cereal loaded with sugar? It is to catch the eye of kids sitting in the shopping cart with mom. And now we have reached the point where more than half of adolescents between the ages of 12 to 15 are considered physically unfit.
We all have freewill, but that only gets us so far when these very addictive ingredients are stacked against us. As this book points out, the food scientists over the decades have engineered food to the point where it is nearly impossible to eat small amounts of them.
They avoid the word addictive in all of their advertisement aware of how that could one day backfire on them in lawsuits, but that is exactly how they have engineered their products. The idea is to sell as much as possible without regards to anything else, then hide behind free markets, free will and free choice. It is what the consumer wants after all.
And the coming lawsuits are what they really fear. There is a belief in the industry that one day they are going to get hit with major lawsuits brought by the states just as they did against the tobacco companies in the late 90s. The tobacco conglomerates eventually settled those lawsuits for a whopping $365 billion with the states.
There are no villains in the public health crisis we are facing. We are all responsible to a certain extent. We allowed our desire for convenience and fast food in our hectic lives to take over and we forgot much of everything about food the previous 50,000 years had taught us.
When you read this book, or this review, resist the temptation to become irate and blame “big food” or capitalism or any particular individual. If not these companies, or these people, it would have been someone else. They were just cogs caught in a large complicated machine that was moving in one direction. Convenience and profits at all cost.
Nor should you make meaningless declarations that you are swearing off all processed foods. It's not going to happen and you know it.
Instead, use it as motivation to make small changes to achieve happiness in your own life, and the lives of the people you care about, especially if you have kids. If you have anger at being manipulated, put that anger to use. Use that free will to kick all of the bad habits in your life.
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