Salt Sugar Fat

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There are times I think this blog and the lifestyle it expounds come off as too extreme. But then I read a book like Michael Moss’ Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, and I begin to think it’s not extreme enough.

Salt Sugar Fat is a history of the marketing of junk foods. Moss’ sources are a mix of food scientists and disenchanted former food executives–most of whom, of course, are wealthy men with personal trainers who never eat the unhealthy foods they marketed.

These scientists and executives begin with a tactical advantage: we’re all hard wired to crave salt, sugar and fat. The more the better. Let’s be honest. It takes enormous willpower to resist that bowl of potato chips. I dove into a bowl of chips this weekend and probably consumed a week’s worth of salt and calories in one sitting.

Moss stops short of calling it a conspiracy but, in an interesting chapter, details the takeover of home economics associations by food industry representatives in the latte half of the 20th century. Lessons about cooking from scratch receded and were replaced by how to use cake mixes and shop for appliances.

But the primary focus of the book is how food industry has found ways to amplify our cravings. They’ve carefully calculated “bliss points,” the exact amount of unhealthy ingredients to add to a particular food to make us desire more. Moss quotes Kraft food CEO Geoffrey Bible,

The simple beauty of the Kraft General Food challenge is that everybody eats . . . This is the part of the new job I’m especially enjoying: The potential is at once limitless and incredibly daunting. The fascinating challenge is to discover unmet needs surrounding this behavior that has been with mankind since day one. Thee needs are there, waiting in the detritus of modern life to be excavated and defined as likely today to center around time or convenience as they are around taste, value or nutrition, and as likely to involve the subtleties of how, when why, or where people eat as much as what they eat. So that’s point number one. We don’t create demand. We excavate it. We prospect for it. We dig until we find it.

Bible is just rediscovering what Giodorno Bruno wrote about in his 1591 manual on manipulation, De Vinculis In Genere (On the binding forces in general–combined with his explorations of the art of memory this is what got Bruno in trouble–not his scientific endeavors). Bruno called manipulators like Bible, “soul hunters.”  Their tool is eros in the widest sense of that word: desire. They dig deep into our cravings and exploit them through the imagery of advertising. Combine abundant fossil fuel and government subsidies that make processed foods economical with advertising unhealthy food and you get a public health disaster.

Thankfully this is one of those issues we can all work on. We simply have to start cooking from scratch.

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21 Comments

  1. I found myself getting very angry as I read this book. We’re all busy pointing fingers at fat people who have no self-control when really we need to realize these foods are formulated to bypass our natural control systems! Anyway, we do our best in this house to never buy that kind of stuff. Since I’m home with my kids, I have plenty of time to cook from scratch.

  2. Hi Erik, I am rsvp’d for the LABB’s Altadena mobile oven bake tomorrow . . . but I have had constant difficulty accessing meetup in order to post a comment asking if anyone is coming from the Santa Monica/Westside area. The site is down and has been down for several days. I am on bike and that gets me home kinda later than I’d like, plus not sure how the loaf would transport! Wondering if you know of anyone coming from this area . . . thanks, sue

    • Hi Sue–sorry about this–Meetup had a denial of service attack that lasted over the weekend. The site is back up, so please leave a comment and hopefully someone can give you a lift. Looking forward to seeing you at the bake!

  3. Greed is definitely in the equation of why our grocery store shelves are filled with poison, but it is also eugenics in action.

    • Filled with poison. Really! Do you really believe that or are you just trying to be PC. The hype about salt, sugar and fat is getting crazy and so are the people hyping it. If you don’t want to eat it then don’t but don’t go making up scare stories to make yourself feel intelligent.

  4. On the same note, but about retail industry, I own a book, “Inventing Desire,” that is about Sears, Roebuck marketing ploys. It is a rather old book, but I am sure it is still out there somewhere. I cannot get to the book, but I believe it was published in the 80s or before.

    If my memory serves me correctly, Sears was the purveyor of the idea that “pink is for girls and blue is for boys.” That is a costly idea since hand-me-downs don’t always work and the desire to dress an infant and child appropriately is very strong.

    Your experience with the chips is why I try to never bring chips home.

    Chocolate chips have found my soul. Even when I don’t eat them, they own my soul.

    • There’s a big section in ‘Radical Homemakers’ about the idea of manufacturing discontent (through advertising), then selling a product to ‘quell’ the discontent. I think Sears is mentioned specifically in that book as well.

  5. The irony is when you start cooking for yourself you realize those foods just don’t taste very good. I have friends who eat a SAD of processed food and when they try food cooked from scratch they don’t usually like it because it’s “bland” (it does not contain ridiculously high levels of salt, sugar, and/or fat) or “tastes funny” (they taste flavors other than salt, sugar, or fat and don’t know how to process it). These foods really do cloud your senses.

    • That’s totally true, but then strangely, on the other side of the gap, once you’ve developed a taste for real food, processed food tastes completely horrible. I’ll have the occasional torrid affair with a bag of Cheetos, but I really dislike chain restaurant food and packaged supermarket food. It doesn’t even register as food for me.

      I guess the trick is finding your way to real food. I was raised on processed food, and looking back I see my conversion was a slow evolution based on a few gestalt moments with delicious whole foods.

  6. Parsimony, the chocolate chips have descended upon me as well!!! :(
    It’s brutal.

    This is a fascinating topic and I’ll definitely be picking up the book. Nutrition is very interesting to me, and the way that American’s nutrition has been manipulated is wild. And not entirely unexpected. I’m curious to see what else Moss has uncovered and researched in this book.

  7. MiscMarsha and Mrs. homegrown- you both are so very correct. Processed food makes from scratch cooking taste bland, unless you persist. I also can’t find anything at a chain restaurant -or even the average American restaurant- that suits my taste buds after years of eating more healthy options. I usually choose a simple burger, adorned with mushrooms if possible. I also occasionally indulge in doritos or cheetos, and it has the same effect on me – it doesn’t seem like food.

    My sister in law, a lovely person, has yet to realize this. She made an appetizer dip at a family gathering consisting of envelopes of ranch dressing mix, chicken, cheese, cream of mushroom soup, and maybe some other stuff. after a few bites I felt my salt and fat sensors kick on and my brain screamed ‘more, more!!!’. But my senses said ‘stop, or you will have returned to the dark side’.

    I studied crop science and agricultural economics at a noble midwestern institution (I grew up on a farm, and had no idea what else to study). I remember so many discussions about ‘value added’ products. There isn’t much profit in a bushel of corn, but if you take that corn and convert it into tortilla chips, or some other junk food, the profit margin increases enormously. It is also worth noting that advertising has really fooled the public into thinking that cooking from scratch is overwhelming. But making a cake or especially brownies from scratch really requires just a few more ingredients than the box mixes. And it’s not really that hard to throw a few chicken pieces in the oven and bake them yourself!

  8. Thank you for bringing this subject up. I have been studying how our taste buds have been manipulated over the years and how when we eat processed food and ‘junk’ food we just crave more and more. When I began making food from scratch and eating food that was was recognizable as FOOD I found that my taste buds gradually became happy with REAL food. Now I can tell people when their desserts contain HFCS because of the slimy taste it give to my mouth. I refuse to eat food that are GMO’s or have ingredients that sound like chemicals. When I go for my physicals the doctors can’t believe I am as old as I am and they can’t find a thing wrong with me. I hope to keep it like that.

    • There’s an interesting part of this book relating to how tastes change when you eliminate processed foods–in particular, salt. People use a lot less of it once they go off processed foods.

    • So true! For Christmas dinner I pulled out all the dietary (and financial) stops and made a pecan pie. This recipe called for golden syrup, instead of the usual corn syrup. The difference, to my taste buds, was astounding. Unless you are fortunate to have an artisanal bakery in your neighborhood, home baking is really the way to go. The taste difference is quite clear.

  9. I just made caramel popcorn from scratch. I joke, but that’s a lot better for me than something loaded with corn syrup, preservatives, and whatever endocrine disrupting chemicals leached from the packaging.

  10. Interesting about how “cooking from scratch” instruction lessened – I’ve noticed that most of my “regular” cookbooks rely on mixes like Bisquick, and whenever I make a cake or brownies from scratch people think I’m a miracle worker (it’s not that hard…why did we ever need a mix?) We have to cook from scratch more because my daughter can’t process dairy, but I find it’s such a relief not to have so many different packages in my pantry – pancake mix, biscuit mix, cake mix…they are all based on the same ingredients!

  11. I’m late to this discussion but I just want to correct a comment you made. Salt is not a natural taste like sugar or fat. We can get used to high levels of salt but we can also train ourselves away from them. It takes about a month and then we lose our taste for high salt food. This is me now and it’s really hard to eat food away from home as I find it so salty. On the other hand, sugar I could always eat no matter how long I’ve been away from it:)

    I read the book last year and it also makes me so angry to see what abominations the do to food to hook us in…all for profit.
    I’d really rather be related to monkeys and baboons that to be considered the same species as these corporate thieves.

    Marieann

  12. To Gone With The Wind: if you don’t believe salt, sugar and fat are poisons, read or watch Forks Over Knives. Our top deadly diseases number are heart disease, cancer, strokes, diabetes. My husband was able to come off blood pressure and diabetic medications by eliminating these from his diet.

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