Salt, Sugar, Fat – It’s Not You, It’s Them

The release of Michael Moss’ book Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us has prompted a flood of news stories. Moss is a New York Times reporter and a Pulitzer Prize winner. The guy has street cred as an investigator. I’ve not yet read the book; however, I’ve read the excerpt provided by Moss to the NYT Magazine. I also heard Moss interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air yesterday. Moss’ revelation confirms the worst of my concerns about the producers of processed and convenience foods. The long and short of it is that when you feel like you can’t stop eating Oreo’s, that’s because you very nearly can’t. It’s not you, it’s them.

Moss reveals that in 1999 the Vice President of Kraft addressed CEOs of the other leading food producers and laid out his concerns about the growing obesity crisis and the increasingly clear links between highly processed foods and some of America’s biggest health threats. This individual worried about his industry’s culpability both from a moral and a financial perspective – we could get sued people. The response of his peers? We are responsible to our shareholders. We’ve spent a long time figuring out exactly how much salt, sugar and fat to use to ensure that consumers will buy our products and we cannot risk the loss of marketshare that would surely result from a change in practices.  Let me say that part again: we are beholden to our shareholders.  Guess who’s not in that sentence?  You (unless of course you are a majority shareholder in General Mills or something).

Let me be clear, I am aware that companies who make food are for-profit companies.  I realize that this is the arena in which they are making their living.  Somehow, however, the brazenness of the shareholder beholden-ness shocked me.  The implications of the food industry’s refusal to consider health crises in food formulation are vast.  For me, the takeaway from Moss’ revelations is two-fold: 1) processed and packaged has been scientifically researched and developed to maximize taste, addiction, and profit, and 2) the onus of providing your body with nutritious food falls entirely on you.

Profit and Food Products

The research behind the formulation of most modern processed food was actually performed by scientists working for the military.  Military rations must withstand unusual conditions (unpredictable temperature ranges, long term storage) and they must be nearly instant in preparation.  The problem that the military discovered in the 70s was that the rations were so gross that military personnel were actually refusing to eat them.  I don’t think I need to tell you how problematic a lack of calories might be in a wartime situation.  So the military sought out the help of science.  How can we make food that tastes good enough to eat and that will still hold up to the conditions that wartime activities might impose?  The answer was to add a whole mess of sugar, salt, and fat.

Researchers found the “bliss point” of sugar – the amount of sugar that actually makes you feel happy and that stimulates additional desire for food (ain’t sugar grand?).  Sugar can also improve the appearance of various foods.  This all worked very well for military rations; and then the same research got applied to EVERYBODY’s food.  Food that doesn’t need to withstand those crazy and unpredictable conditions, food for people who are not exerting themselves physically all day and who have other choices; food that people could eat everyday for their entire lifetime rather than temporarily in an emergency situation.  The food industry has systematically added salt, sugar, and fat to food to find the magic amount which will encourage you to buy it, eat too much of it, feel like crap, and then buy it again.  It’s not you, it’s them.  They have taken advantage of you and your biological wiring to make more money.

Being a Nutrition Consumer

I get the feeling, and please correct me (kindly ) if I’m wrong, that most of us assume that the products that are available to us in stores are safe to eat.  We have a Food and Drug Administration; there are rules and regulations about food production and sale.  We see that there are recalls from time to time, so obviously somebody is ensuring that our food is good for us.  This couldn’t be further from the truth.  Sure, there are rules and regs and the occasional recall, but these are all about things like E. Coli, Listeria, and substances like melamine.  They are not about diabetes and heart disease.  Nobody has insisted that food producers actually make food that won’t hurt you over the course of a lifetime.  The healthy functioning of your body, the physical quality of your life is not their concern.  The rate of your consumption is their concern.  The number of packages of salt, sugar, and fat is what they are about.

When you make a large purchase for your family, say a car, you likely do a bit of research.  You find out which cars have good safety records.  You find out which cars don’t break down.  You find out which car is going to give you the maximum bang for your available buck.  You do all of this because you KNOW that the car sales folks are NOT looking out for your best interest; they’re trying to sell as many cars as they can.  They’re trying to increase their profit margin.  They’re trying to keep their shareholders happy.  Does this sound familiar to you?

In the face  of food choices, it’s clear that there is only one answer to the problem.  It’s not them… it’s you.  It’s us.  It is up to us to find out which foods are safe for our families; it is up to us to find out which foods will provide our bodies with the fuel that they need to run efficiently and with maximum reward.  It is up to us to find out which foods will give us the most bang for our nutritional buck.  Just because it’s cheap doesn’t mean it will do what you want and need it too – we know this is true when we shop for other goods.  We must assume it is true about our food.  We must assume that food producers will do what they feel they must to get us to buy their food, and that the choices they make may not be the ones we would make if we were involved in that conversation.  Food is a commodity.  It is a good that is sold for profit.  It is not, apparently, a public good.

What To Do?

babystepsIt’s clear that a desire to be healthy should lead us to learning about food products, reading labels, and preparing real, whole foods.  I know there are challenges, but let’s not lose sight of the fact that, in the paraphrased words of Michael Moss: maybe cooking real, whole food isn’t as inconvenient as the food companies would have us think it is.  Maybe the boxes that save us SO much time only save us ten minutes.  Maybe we’d feel so much better cooking our own food that we wouldn’t care that it took 10 minutes longer.  Maybe over time our cooking skills would catch up with our schedules through practice and none of it would take longer than those boxes and frozen items that are scientifically engineered to be addictive.  Maybe we’ve been sold more than convenience food, maybe we’ve been sold a bill of goods about how hard it is to make our own real food.  What if we all decided to find out?  What kind of food would they make next?  I think it’s time for a grand experiment.  If you’d like to play along, give real food a try.

If you’re not sure where to start, our Baby Steps series has a lot of great information on how to start changing your eating habits for the better. Or take a look around on our site, you’ll find tons of real food recipes that don’t require a chef’s skills or a banker’s budget.  The internet and your local library are chock full of resources for researching the most important purchases you make, the fuel for your body, the driver for your brain, the energy for your spirit.  Caveat emptor.  Let the buyer beware.  Let the buyer be informed.  Let the buyer eat food, real food. We can help.

40 responses

  1. Super Like this post! Kel and I were just talking about this – specifically how fast food companies have engineered their food to hit all of the triggers: sugary, salty, fatty. When someone says they are addicted to Big Macs – they are! Very, very scary (and sinister) indeed. Thanks for this post and for giving me a new book to add to my Must Read list!

    • Thanks Fried. I find it very scary as well, and while I suspected the sinister part, I was less angry when it was just a suspicion. I’m ordering a copy as well, even though I think it will make me a raving lunatic.

  2. Every year I learn more about this stuff, yet it never ceases to appall me! Thanks for spreading the word.

    I nominated you for a Liebster Award! Coincidentally, right now your comment box is aligned with the part of your sidebar that indicates you are already a Liebster Blog, which I didn’t know…but I’ve just won for the second time, so you can, too! 🙂

  3. I read an interesting article in an economics journal that compares the strategies, both political and business, being used by the food industry with those that kept the tobacco industry safe from culpability for so long. Perhaps the tide will turn against Big Food as well. It sure helps to have eloquent statements like this! I hope people will share this with those who do not yet realize the attack they are under from Big Food!

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  5. I’m at work and its hard to read this and really pay attntion but I’m saving it to read later. Such good information!

    I agree that we as americans take too much for granted and just assume things are safe since they are forsale…ummm smoking anyone??

    Thanks for the post!

    • Our pleasure. And I think you’re right on with the smoking comparison. It seems to be exactly the same. So disheartening and so many folks don’t realize how trusting they are being. Thanks for stopping by!

  6. I heard the interview on NPR too. I got to admit though, the guy’s voice got on my nerves … but I focused on his message. LOL About a year ago I went through a major overhaul of how I eat and feed my family. I follow the primal lifestyle as closely as possible. All dairy comes from the farm store up the street now, where the gurnsey and jersey cows pasture, and the milk is whole and it’s raw. My pollen allergies virtually disappeared. I started to buy meat from a local rancher. All beef and lamb are 100% grass-fed (and “finished) with absolutely no grain added to their diets. Chickens are free-range. The eggs I get are from local free-range chickens too. I cut out eating almost all grains myself, although the family still eats bread … which we get from Great Harvest. I can no longer tolerate gluten. I try to minimize my sugar, but when I indulge in sweet, it is sugar and not high-fructose corn syrup. I signed up with and get fresh, locally produced veggies every week and I haunt the areas farmers market. I rarely step inside a grocery store … all these changes jumped my food budget through the roof! But I figure I’ll save money in the long run with better health as hubby and I head into our twilight years. We eat more fat than most people would think is right, but I lost weight and feel better because the fat is of excellent quality (balanced omega-3:omega-6) and I’ve turned my body from being a sugar burner to a fat burner. I’m a baby boomer and we are a HUGE part of the US population and we need to take charge of our lives and health and it all starts with food. You have a great blog here!

    • Thanks Hilary! Sounds like you’ve had quite a revolution in your house! I’ve found that since I switched over it is harder to keep the budget where I’d like it to be, but we’ve been incorporating more simple frugal meals and that seems to counteract the price explosion. It’s taken some time to sort all of that out, though. So glad you’ve decided to make the switch and that you’re feeling well! Hurrah for real foods!

    • It is appalling Katie, and I hate how it forces me into a position of distrust. It would be nice to be able to shop without reading all the labels, but I guess I’ll save that kind of shopping for the farmers’ market. Thanks so much for the invite – we’ll be sure to check it out!

  7. Wow, thanks for the informative post! I’m 50, diabetic and CANNOT stop eating sweets! I thought it was a character flaw. ( Carb/Sweet addict.) Any ideas about how to reverse the ‘trend’?

    • Vivian, in my own quest to conquest my sweet tooth, I’ve found that stepping my sugar down over time has been most successful as it allows my taste buds to acclimate to less sweet flavors. We’ve done a series on decreasing sugar and linked a bunch of lower sugar recipes that might help you quiet the craving and bring your sugar intake down over time.

      Improving the quality of your carbs can also be very helpful – i.e. using whole grains rather than refined an natural sweeteners rather than refined sugars. Let us know if we can help.

  8. We have quite a few children who are autistic attending our church and we’ve started serving fresh fruit as a snack instead of packaged bio-hazards. I’ve watched amazing breakthroughs as the autistic children eat whole nutritious foods without wheat. Thank you for taking time to coach us and give us powerful reasons to change.

    • Trish, this comment means so much to me. I’m so delighted to hear about the changes you’ve made for your community and even happier to hear about the effects. I am privileged to provide any help that I can. Thanks so much for sharing this with me.

    • Delighted to have you hear Mary Catherine – and I agree it is scary. It’s a good thing there are so many people who are sharing ways to stop rewarding Big Food for feeding us junk. I hope our Baby Steps are helpful to you.

  9. Really great post. This is my first time to your blog, but I’ll definately be coming back. Real food is such an important and unfortunately ABSENT part of our lives as human beings, and this commentary on it was very well written.

    • Thanks Heather. I agree that real food has been pretty absent in our culture, but am encouraged by the conversations that seem to be surfacing. So glad you stopped by and we hope to see you again soon!

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  11. It’s frustrating that our American diet is completely based on who we can make the biggest profit for. 😦 Hopefully one day, people will realize what is going on and reject it. I for one do not want to destroy my health anymore than it has been, just so someone else can live in a mansion and drive a fancy car.


    • Maybe I’m optimistic, but I feel like more people are waking up lately and with books like this coming out, at least the seeds get planted. Thanks so much for stopping by Lynn!

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  13. Wow, I had no idea as to the background info on processed foods. As for quick easy meals, it’s great that there are quick easy ways to make homemade meals as well. I keep seeing alot about freezer and crockpot meals.
    Thanks for sharing this info at my Healthy Tuesday hop! 🙂

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