Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us

Image of Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us
Release Date: 
January 1, 2014
Random House
Reviewed by: 

“Carrots, anyone?”

This is a public apology to my body for having spent most of my lifetime eating the following foods, most of which were created by half a dozen processed food companies and detailed in Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Moss:

  • Lucky Charms
  • Yoplait
  • Oreos
  • Count Chocula
  • TastyKakes
  • Cheez-Its
  • Coca-Cola
  • Pepsi-Cola
  • Froot Loops
  • Cap’n Crunch
  • Twinkies
  • Fig Newtons
  • Jell-O gelatin
  • Dr. Pepper
  • Pringles
  • Entenmann’s cakes
  • Pepperidge Farm products
  • Jell-O pudding
  • Sugar Crisps
  • Sugar Frosted Flakes
  • Hellmann’s mayonnaise
  • Tang
  • Pop Tarts
  • Betty Crocker devil’s food cake
  • Kellogg’s Corn Flakes
  • Post Toasties
  • Sugar Corn Pops
  • Sugar Smacks
  • Apple Cinnamon Cheerios
  • Special K
  • Rice Krispies
  • Rice Krispies treats
  • Apple Jacks
  • Frosted Mini Wheats
  • Kool-Aid
  • Capri Sun
  • Kentucky Fried Chicken
  • Crystal Lite
  • Ben and Jerry’s (yes, even Ben and Jerry’s)
  • Haagen-Dazs
  • Kit Kat bars
  • Snickers
  • M&Ms
  • Cheez Whiz (a painful admission)
  • Philadelphia cream cheese
  • Kraft’s macaroni and cheese
  • Oscar Meyer bologna
  • Oscar Meyer wieners
  • Reese’s peanut butter cups
  • Taco Bell
  • Nestles Crunch bars
  • Wheat Thins
  • Triscuits
  • Hershey’s kisses
  • Cadbury dairy milk chocolate
  • Newman’s Own Organic Pasta Sauce
  • V-8 vegetable juice
  • Lay’s potato chips
  • Doritos
  • Cheetos
  • Fritos
  • Pizza Hut
  • Butterfingers
  • Baby Ruth
  • Nesquik
  • And so on and so forth, until I can barely squeeze into my jeans.

According to Moss, the top half dozen food manufacturers in the United States are responsible for habituating Americans to these products by manipulating their salt, sugar, and fat content. While this may be good for their bottom lines, the products do nothing good for our waistlines. We are suffering an epidemic of obesity, which is costing the country uncountable billions in healthcare costs.

Teenagers are often too obese to serve in the military (proof that salt, sugar, and fat taken in liberal doses can actually lengthen your life). But for the rest of us, all these processed foods are stripped of nutrition and do our bodies no good.

Those companies, some of which are owned by the nation’s leading tobacco manufacturers, have co-opted the government through large donations to both sides of the aisle, turned the Food and Drug Administration and other regulatory arms into captives of the food industry, and have basically hooked us on a whole lot of things that taste great but only leave us hungry for more.

Even some storeowners who want to do the right thing for their customers get punished by food vendors. Writes Moss: “I met one [convenience] store owner in Philadelphia who tried to improve the nutritional profile of his offerings by positioning bananas up front, only to be scolded by a soda delivery crew, who claimed this space as their own.”

Moss takes us inside the food industry and introduces us to the experts who maximize the deliciousness of any given food, regardless of the effect of the over-consumption that invariably follows the higher levels of sugar, salt, and fat that achieve that dubious goal. These people aren’t evil, comic book-style villains.  They have spouses and families and children who, presumably, are just as attracted to unhealthful food as are everyone else’s. But there’s just too much money to be made with food that demands to be eaten to the point of unseemly bloat. So the junk food manufacturers pack in the sugar, salt, and fat—and the rest of society packs on the pounds.

What will it take to change America’s eating habits? Could there ever be the food equivalent of the 1964 Surgeon General’s report on cigarettes? Doubtful. Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg merely wanted to make you take two trips to the soda machine at McDonald’s instead of just one, and he got hammered.

Since many of the items on my list were things I ate as a child, I can plead ignorance. As a parent, however, I’ve no such luxury. Maybe one day these processed foods will come with the same sort of scary warning labels we see on tobacco products. Until then, it’s up to us not to dig our own graves with our teeth, Moss argues in this brilliant tour d’horizon of the ways processed foods are perfected before they come to market.

The only problem, of course, is that all of the products in this list just taste so darned good.

Carrots, anyone?