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Salt, Sugar, and Fat: Why We Can't Quit Junk Food's Holy Trinity

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Health Issues page and our Food Safety Research Center page.

Veteran New York Times journalist Michael Moss entered the world of food reporting when he covered a salmonella outbreak in a Georgia peanut factory, a story he came to see as being about "loss of control by the food industry." He followed up on that theme with an investigation of E. coli-tainted Cargill hamburger, which earned him a Pulitzer Prize in 2010. Around that time, he says, a close source told him, "As bad as these contamination incidents are, there's this other public-health crisis out there that's caused by the stuff we intentionally put it into processed foods, and have absolute control over." Meaning, of course, salt, sugar, and fat - the "holy trinity" of processed-food ingredients, and the namesake of Moss' new book.

Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us traces how these ingredients worked their way into our food in ever-larger amounts, not by accident but as part of a concerted effort by food companies to make their products as irresistible and addictive as possible. Moss profiles the food scientists whom corporations like Kellogg and Kraft pay to formulate exact combinations of ingredients that target consumers' "bliss point": where food is as tasty as possible without being so satisfying that we stop wanting more. Think junk food like Cheez-Its, movie-theater popcorn, and Oreos: You can kill a whole bag of the stuff without even noticing.

Moss reveals how fundamental these ingredients have become to the processed-food industry's entire model: how sugar intensifies our cravings; how fat and sugar work together to make products vastly more tasty than either ingredient could alone; how fat plays up a given food's most desirable traits (such as smooth texture) while masking others (like the acidity of sour cream), and how salt smothers the chemical tinge that would otherwise make most junk food inedible. Salt, sugar, and fat also make possible the long shelf life and easy preparation that inspired the term "convenience food" and sold it to a new generation of working moms.

We got a chance to chat with Moss when he stopped by the Grist office last week. Here are some highlights from our conversation. (Interview has been condensed and edited.)

Q. Salt Sugar Fat reveals parallels between the food industry and tobacco industry's efforts to get us hooked on their products - not just through creative marketing, but by focusing on the way our bodies react to key ingredients. Does this mean we could legally go after food companies in the same way?

A.
The processed-food industry is entirely confident it can withstand tobacco-type litigation. I think their confidence comes from the difference between tobacco and food, inherently, and the difficulty that a lawyer would have blaming any one company or any one product for the obesity crisis or diabetes.

That said, there's certainly nothing stopping the states from going after processed food collectively, because the estimates are that obesity is causing as much as $300 billion in extra medical expenses and lost productivity every year. So it's probably a [bigger] issue financially for the health system than even tobacco.

What really struck me in reporting the book was how the tobacco industry plays another role. Philip Morris, the largest tobacco company, became the largest food manufacturer in North America, by buying first General Foods and then Kraft. Starting in the late '90s, Philip Morris kind of gets religion on tobacco - it's under increasing regulatory pressure, it starts worrying that it's losing the public trust, it's constantly polling consumers, and its reputation is plummeting. It becomes the first tobacco company to embrace government regulation as a way of avoiding complete disaster. So they turn to their food division, and said to them, you guys are going to face as great, if not a greater, problem with salt, sugar, and fat as we are with nicotine and tobacco. You've got to start doing something to reexamine your dependence on [those ingredients].

I found it really startling that tobacco would be the entity warning the food companies about obesity.


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