Michael Moss was examining the powerful role salt plays in processed foods when he took a trip to Battle Creek, Mich., where food scientists at Kellogg whipped up some samples of the company’s famous products, specially made for him without the salt.
“It was, to be blunt, a culinary horror show,” Moss reports. “The Corn Flakes tasted like metal filings, the Eggo frozen waffles like straw. Cheez-Its lost their golden yellow hue, turning a sickly yellow, and they went all gummy when chewed. The buttery flavor of the Keebler Town House Light Buttery Crackers, which contained no actual butter to start with, simply disappeared.”
A related but far vaster culinary horror show is the target of Moss’s propulsively written, persuasively argued new book, “Salt Sugar Fat”: the convenience foods that corporations meticulously engineer and relentlessly pump out to be snatched up and gobbled down by an ever more corpulent America, whose urge to indulge has been supersized. An exactingly researched, deeply reported work of advocacy journalism, it traces the rise of processed food in our culture, explaining how corporations set out “to create the biggest crave” and keep their “heavy users” using.
Moss’s mind is never far from the obesity epidemic raging in this, the fattest country on earth, and the subtitle of his book is an indictment: “How the Food Giants Hooked Us.” One of his aims, he writes, is to “hold them accountable for the social costs that keep climbing.” As for the rest of us, their customers, “Salt Sugar Fat” is a blaring alarm, imploring us to wake up and pay attention.
Moss divides the book into three sections, one for each of those “huge, powerful forces of nature in unnatural food.” Its official publication date, March 12, was to have been the date when New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s ban on sales of some jumbo-size sugary drinks went into effect. But on March 11, a judge struck down the regulations, which opponents had castigated as an infringement on consumers’ right to guzzle however much soda they like, and merchants’ right to hawk whatever sells.
Moss knows that line of defense well. “This is not some big corporate plot to fatten up kids,” a Kraft spokeswoman said in 1994, responding to a cardiologist’s charge that the company’s stratospherically popular Lunchables line was a “nutritional disaster.” “This is what kids want,” she said.
But even some in the processed-foods industry have advocated taking not just a degree of responsibility for the spiraling obesity crisis but action to arrest it. Most tellingly, the tobacco titans of Philip Morris encouraged that approach at Kraft a decade ago, when the company was theirs: capping the amounts of salt, sugar, and fat that went into the products; reducing calories; spelling out nutrition information for an entire package as well as for a single serving, in case customers were tempted to polish off the whole thing; and reining in some of their advertising. Such industry efforts have tended to sputter. Meanwhile, Moss writes, Washington’s role “is less a matter of regulation than it is promotion of some of the industry practices deemed most threatening to the health of consumers.”
Moss demonstrates with devastating clarity that an enormous amount of scientific research and exquisite calibration goes into locating the “bliss point” for the processed foods we put in our mouths, and that their marketing frequently elides reality, preying in particular on children and their busy, well-meaning mothers. There is outrage in his enterprise, but he keeps his tone mild, never demonizing individuals. A New York Times reporter who won a 2010 Pulitzer Prize for his disturbing coverage of food safety in the meat industry, he has plainly earned the trust of various food-giant insiders.
One of those is a chemist who created Tang and Jell-O instant pudding at General Foods back in the era when convenience foods were aspirational, sold as part of the modern lifestyle. Another is a retired Kraft food scientist who snacked happily for decades on one of his inventions, Cheez Whiz, until the day in 2001 when he found it tasted “like axle grease” — whereupon he discovered that cheese was no longer listed as an ingredient. And a former Coca-Cola executive tells Moss about the moment his lifelong loyalty to the product changed in a Rio de Janeiro barrio, whose populace the company was envisioning as a new market. “A voice in my head says, ‘These people need a lot of things, but they don’t need a Coke,’ ” the executive recalls. “I almost threw up.”
The Cheez Whiz fan is a rarity among the book’s educated, prosperous interview subjects. “There is a class issue at work in processed foods, in which the inventors and company executives don’t generally partake in their own creations,” Moss writes. They may be as pressed for time as their fellow Americans, but they know better than to eat foods designed to hook them.
Legions of adults who were forced to take home ec back in the day may recall an ancient educational film, the sort “The Simpsons” routinely sent up with its smooth-voiced narrator, Troy McClure. The movie’s refrain was set to a cheesy little tune, the better to embed itself in the brain: “Read the label, set a better table.” In retrospect, it’s not bad advice. “Salt Sugar Fat” makes a resounding case for avoiding a host of harms, as individuals and as a nation, by following it.
Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at lcollins-hughes@