“Salt, Sugar, Fat:” You Can’t Have Just One

Buzzfeed published an article last week titled, “19 American Supermarket Foods That Most Of The World Would Never Eat,” which prompts the inevitable question: if the rest of the world wouldn’t eat these, why would anyone?

The answer, according to author Michael Moss: “Salt, Sugar, Fat.”

Moss, who famously introduced the phrase “pink slime” into the American lexicon with his 2009 exposé on processed beef, now delves deep into how the processed food companies, which dominate our grocery store purchases, have perfectly engineered their products to be immediately satisfying and highly addictive to  unsuspecting consumers.

Sugar, for example, follows the same neural pathways to the pleasure center as addictive drugs. As more sugar is added to a product, consumer pleasure increases until it reaches the “bliss point”: the amount of sugar which produces maximum pleasure. Exceed the threshold of the bliss point, and the product becomes sickeningly sweet.

Engineering the “bliss point” in foods seems like a harmless, even clever practice until Moss reveals exactly how much sugar it takes to reach the bliss point for adult consumers: a regular 12-ounce Coca-Cola, for instance, contains 39 grams of sugar, or a little over 9 teaspoons.  Imagine stacking nine sugar cubes and eating them all in one sitting.

Scarier still is the fact that the bliss point for children is roughly twice as high as that for an adult.  While we inherently love sugar from birth, our earliest experiences shape how much sugar we find enjoyable, and processed food industries, Moss asserts, increasingly influence how much sugar children find palatable.

It’s not an unfamiliar story: food companies market sugary foods to children, those children develop brand preferences that are carried into adulthood, and these brand preferences are passed onto their own children, meanwhile the climbing prevalence of obesity and type 2 diabetes mirrors the increase in the amount of added sugar consumed on a regular basis. Add the equally addictive ingredients of salt and fat, and you’ve created not only a best-selling food product, but also the perfect recipe for a national health crisis.

It’s not surprising to note that the law of unintended consequences prevails in Moss’ tale of industry greed, where profit margins and competition for shelf space continue to take precedence over the health and safety of the consumer. “Win now, fix it later” is the dominant mindset of company executives and investors, but once a battle is won — say, Coca-Cola’s triumph over Pepsi — companies find it harder to cut down on the addictive ingredients that have made their product a success, facing backlash both from consumers and Wall Street when they test out the healthier versions of processed food staples. In fact, there is an incentive for companies to continue making addictive foods, as the negative health effects cannot be linked back to them directly and take years to develop.

The concept of making food taste better using the same ingredients is not a new one. Chefs have experimented with salt, sugar, fat and every other ingredient in their kitchens trying to make the most flavorful dish possible. Moss’s story struck a chord because it reveals a horrific example of what happens when consumers get too much of a good thing.

Chefs might have made food taste better in the past through experimentation, but never with the efficiency of agribusiness.

What’s new about Moss’ story is his unveiling of precisely how the bliss points for salt, sugar and fat have been calculated through years of industry-sponsored research. Even more intriguing are his interviews with food company executives and scientists, past and present, who only sometimes express remorse over how successfully they marketed and engineered the foods we seem to be hooked on.

Unfortunately for Moss, salt, sugar and fat, while technically different, function relatively the same, both for processed food appeal and for the narrative flow of the book. The pacing begins to plod after the first section as the success stories of addictive food products begin to look remarkably similar. In addition, Moss only offers us a few closing lines of advice on how to combat the consumer culture we find ourselves in today: “After all, we decide what to buy. We decide how much to eat.”   

It’s advice that falls a little flat after reading an entire book on how food companies manipulate us into deciding what to buy and how much to (over)eat. Perhaps the force of Moss’s words would have been stronger had he touched upon some of the more hopeful developments in America’s food culture: the rise of locally-sourced restaurants and farmers markets, the undeniable success of stores like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods and the increasingly prevalent demand for authenticity and transparency in what products we buy and what ingredients they contain.

Still, it’s easy to see why Moss would hesitate to be so optimistic. Consumers have not been known to refuse food that tastes delicious, no matter the long-term costs of that extra flavor or lower price point. At one point in the book, a General Mills executive describes the appeal of processed food as “minimum mess and maximum convenience.” The unavailability of produce to many  inner-city areas and the new cravings from corporations would make anyone cynical.

After reading Moss’ tale of the inability of both the food industry and consumers to wean themselves from salt, sugar and fat, one can’t help but think that the commercial and cultural success of pushing processed foods has instead created a long-term mess with no convenient solution.