Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Easy to avoid, way harder to quit

Book: Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hook Us
Author: Michael Moss
Published: 2013 (Random House)
Pages: 347

Food manufacturers – not the people who, you know, grow things, mind you, but those who put together food with chemistry and whatever else is cheapest while still tasting good – use massive amounts of these three titular ingredients to addict us to what they sell at the expense of our collective health. If I say “duh” right here, it would undermine the craft of this book, which was well-done.

Each of the three major ingredients got its own section, with a general overview and then details and history about a specific product that best illustrates how either sugar, salt, or fat makes people compulsively buy and overeat that food and why that’s a terrible habit that’s hard to break. Kids have a higher tolerance for sugar, so sugar is added to food for kids so they’ll want more of it, and growing up eating that not only contributes alarmingly to childhood obesity and diabetes onset but also sets them up to expect elevated sugar levels in food as the norm. Salt is of course a great and supercheap (I had no idea it was only ten cents a pound) preserver, which is like #1 “we need this” for manufactured food’s great asset of keeping forever without going bad, and also the easiest way to mask the taste of the other chemical ingredients. Fat is not so much for taste but for texture, “mouthfeel,” the almost-indescribable way something hits the tongue and slides down the throat.

It’s entirely possible to make a lot of the mentioned foods in lower-salt/sugar/fat versions – but with taste, texture, and preservation compromises that manufacturers make up by silently adding more of the non-targeted ingredients because, again, people are so used to the current levels that messing with them usually drives down sales to unacceptable (to the companies) levels.  

None of this information is surprising, except for maybe the extent and frankness of what food company workers know but go ahead with it anyway. Because, yeah, they totally all know this, and some are more uncomfortable with it than others, but all of them are ultimately driven by profits and scared of dropping behind the others in sales because apparently grocery store shelves are the Thunderdome.

Although the fact that the sections went Sugar – Fat – Salt and not in title order bothered me a little and there were notable bits of repetition (especially about the “Bliss Point” concept, which is nifty, the exact proportion combination of ingredients  point where the eater gets maximum enjoyment, but which was explained anew at least once a section), this was a good read about the “why” of all this. And unlike The Omnivore’s Dilemma (which I enjoyed better only because it was more personal), I didn’t close this book wondering, “So then…what IS cool to eat?”

And it reminded me that I haven’t had Doritos in a while or Oreos in a much longer time just as I started making next week’s grocery list. Which – look, I know, but that is why I run and eat carrots for lunch.

Back to the library, along with the oatmeal chocolate chip cookies (two kinds of sugar [brown AND white], at least one kind of fat [I am finally almost out of butter, and those mini-chips probably have a proportionately disgusting amount but are, incidentally, the key to perfect chocolate distribution in this recipe], and a pinch of salt) that I baked for a friend in exchange for their gently-used record player (which also has CD and radio capabilities so I’m not being 100% impractical here. I promise).

Also, if you want a FREE PDF of the FIRST EDITION of the Columbia-based ‘zine Grievances, we totally want you to take it and print it and staple it together and give to all the cool people you know. Let me know on Facebook or in the comments and I’ll send it along for all the revolutionaries in your locale.

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