Can’t stop eating potato chips? Michael Moss can tell you why

Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us
Reviewed by
Dorothy A. Phillips

Michael Moss, a Pulitzer prize- winning New York Times investigative reporter, has written a damning indictment of the food and beverage industry in his new book Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. The food manufacturers, he writes, are “engineering” products that we not only desire, but crave and can’t stop eating. They are not concerned with nutrition, but with beating their competitors for our dollars and “stomach share.”

The childhood obesity epidemic in the U.S. led Pillsbury, in 1999, to host a secret meeting of America’s largest food companies – Kraft, Nabisco, General Mills, Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola, Mars and others. Michael Mudd of Kraft attempted to engage them in a joint solution, citing the massive social costs of diseases caused by obesity – heart disease, hypertension, gallbladder disease, osteoarthritis, cancer – in turn driven by ubiquitous, inexpensive, energy-dense foods. Stephen Sanger from General Mills followed, basically saying they were “not going to screw around with the company jewels.” That was that – the meeting broke up. Obesity in the United States, already affecting nearly 40-million adults, continued to rise.

RESEARCH ON HUMAN TASTE

Moss reports on the results of millions spent by the industry to find out how humans respond to food. Using Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) they found that the taste of sugar, salt and fat go directly from the mouth to the pleasure centres of the brain. Humans are “hard wired” for sweet taste – babies like sweet from birth, but not salty solutions until they are six months or more, and then only if coaxed. Once they learn to like the taste of salt, they prefer it to plain water.

Research shows humans have five primary tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami – a meaty, savoury taste derived from an amino acid called glutamate. The receptors for sweet and salty are not just on the tongue but throughout the mouth and down into the gut. There is a “bliss point” or range for the amount of sugar where it is most satisfying. Beyond the bliss range there is a “break point,” above which the human body does not want more sugar. Fat is not a separate taste, but texture in the mouth, what the industry calls “mouthfeel.” There is no break point for fat. The “full” signal that tells us when we have had enough calories does not work well when sugar is in liquid form, like Coke or juice. Fat is slower to activate the “full” signal, and, when sugar is added to fat, the brakes come off. The industry uses this knowledge of physiology to create the products that we love and crave. Not surprisingly, one of the food industry’s cardinal rules is “When in doubt, add sugar.”

Why humans like sweet and fat is not hard to understand, since these ingredients provide energy. Our desire for salt has been harder to fathom. Though we need some salt, humans become “addicted” to salt. Moss said we can undo that addiction by lowering salt in the diet over about 12 weeks – mostly by staying off processed food.

PROCESSED FOOD PRODUCTS THAT LAST FOR MONTHS

In addition to appeal, the food manufacturers know their products must have a long shelf life. Sugar and salt are also preservatives, used to ward off bacteria. As well, salt covers what the industry calls “off-notes” – unpleasant tastes like bitter or metallic. Producers are especially concerned about what they call “WOF” or the “warmed-over flavour” of meat, which is caused by the oxidation of fats. We all know about WOF in yesterday’s roast beef. Salt covers it. Reducing salt creates problems.

NUTRITION

Fat is more calorie-dense than sugar or protein – fat has nine calories per gram, as compared to four calories per gram for sugar or protein. In a 2010 report, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommended that daily intake of fat be limited to 30 per cent of total calories and that only seven per cent be from saturated fat (red meat, cheese, fats that are solid at room temperature). Health Canada’s current stand on fat in the diet is that there is insufficient data to make such detailed recommendations. The USDA report and Health Canada both say 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day is an adequate limit and 2,300 milligrams per day is an upper limit for adults, with less for children and seniors. Over three-quarters of the salt in our diets comes from processed foods which are so high in sodium that consumers are far exceeding these limits.

When the industry tried to meet consumer complaints about too much fat, the beef industry provided leaner cuts of meat, but they are tough. They use mechanical tenderization – putting meat through a row of steel needles, which sometimes adds E. coli. They also use “brining,” which tenderizes but adds salt. Another method uses ammonia to soften hamburger, then centrifuges it to remove much of the fat – it became known as “pink slime.” When consumers wanted lower salt, the industry tried potassium chloride, but it tasted bitter and was more expensive, so it was dropped. In Britain, manufacturers cut back 20 to 30 per cent on salt and consumers barely noticed. Apparently that was because they were using so much salt that this reduction didn’t affect quality. Removing more than that does affect taste, industry executives say.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Food manufacturers could use herbs and spices in place of salt to create tasty foods, but that increases their costs. Cargill, the private company that provides ingredients to the manufacturers, produces 4.8 million pounds of food-grade salt per day, which Moss estimates to be 1.7 billion pounds per year. They sell salt to producers at 10 cents a pound. It is so cheap the producers don’t even mind wasting it. However, adding a few cents worth of herbs and spices affects the all-important bottom line. If there is a decline in profits, Wall Street starts to complain. The companies say they are providing what consumers want and they will reduce salt only if it doesn’t hurt sales in any way. Campbell’s Soup tried a series of lower-salt soups, but when revenue was flat, they went back to higher sodium content.

MARKETING

This is a huge industry. Moss says the big food manufacturers in 1999 controlled over 700,000 employees and $280 billion in annual sales. They compete with each other for our dollars and spend enormous quantities of those dollars to market to us. They know that we want healthy food, so they market it as healthy, sometimes with misleading information. Fruit juice is often just pure sugar. One product, Pepsico’s Tropicana Peach Papaya Juice, was found by the activist watchdog Centre for Science in the Public Interest to have neither peaches nor papaya, and it was not juice. Companies go to great lengths to put their products in the best place in the supermarket, special displays that you can’t help noticing, some at the checkout counter where impulse purchases are greatest.

The producers conduct research to know what is happening to consumer habits around food and health. Baby boomers – now aged 49 to 67 – like to snack; hence, the increase in foods for snacking. Children like to be in control of their food; hence, “lunchables” with small portions to be put together. The incidence of diabetes has increased to 12 per cent of the U.S. population – producers see this as an opportunity to market artificially sweetened sodas and foods. They target “heavy users” as if they were addicted, which is not far from the truth.

THE CONSUMER

All this leaves the consumer as a pawn in the game of making money from engineered food products and sugary sodas. In 2003, one in three adult Americans was classified as obese. In Canada, the figures for adults are one in four, according to Canada’s Public Health Agency. Children, too, are obese in both countries (one in 5 in the U.S.; about one in 10 in Canada). The consumer is also losing on the salt front, eating far too much sodium each day, according to recent studies in Canada and the U.S. The winners in these competitions are the large processed food companies and their shareholders, as well as Cargill, the private company supplying the ingredients.

HEALTH AND NUTRITION

Is it possible to have healthy nutrition in processed food when packages must sit months before they are consumed, when the extra penny or two per item to add herbs or spices means the bottom line suffers and Wall Street complains? Moss does not prescribe a cure for obesity or control of the industry. He cites some attempts at regulation or taxing ingredients, but says they have created other problems and the companies just pass on expenses to consumers. He notes that Finland cut its per capita consumption of salt by a third, with an accompanying drop in deaths from stroke and heart disease. He mentions that Britain has reduced salt consumption using regulatory pressure and that New York has tried to follow the British lead.

He doesn’t mention the vitamins and minerals that we think of as important to nutrition. Are they removed during food processing? Moss sticks to the basics – salt, sugar and fat. On the salt front, I have one major complaint about Moss’s writing. When Kellogg cooked their products for him entirely free of salt, he reacted as they wanted him to. “Corn Flakes tasted like metal filings, the Eggo frozen waffles like straw.” But no one is asking for exactly the same products without salt. What we want, those of us interested in lower-salt products, is a full redesign, new recipes, including herbs and spices, making products that are pleasantly tasty with a reasonable amount of salt, not entirely salt free. If the industry can spend so much money on finding out how to make consumers crave their products and then marketing them, it should be able to spend money to redesign products that are nutritious and healthy as well.

There is more to the 446-page book than is discussed here. The author covers why cheese is now a much bigger part of the U.S. diet than it was in the 1980s, how food producers adapted the marketing tactics of the cigarette industry, how they control the corner stores in poor neighbourhoods. Salt Sugar Fat is a highly readable description of the food industry, how it works, and some of its personalities. This is an important book for anyone wanting to use processed food while trying to serve healthy, nutritious meals. It’s a fascinating inside look at an industry that affects us all.

Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, by Michael Moss. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2013.

Glebe resident Dorothy A. Phillips has long had an interest in nutrition and has been researching sodium levels in our food supply for a number of years.

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