Salt Sugar Fat is an unflattering biography of food in America named for the three ingredients most prevalent in the packaged treats that have taken over grocery stores and plates. Growing out of the New York Times essay that introduced the world to the hyper-processed beef trimmings known as “pink slime,” Michael Moss’ first book is a formidable, trivia-studded brick of industry secrets, but it’s restricted in envisioning solutions.
Armed with studies and interviews from disenfranchised insiders, Moss sets out to prove that packaged-food manufacturers conduct sophisticated food science to make their foods irresistibly attractive, and ride well-crafted marketing plans the rest of the way. Critical to their research is the search for the “bliss point”—the point or array where test subjects get the most pleasure from sugar or fats added to a product—allowing scientists to tinker with recipes to save money and convert occasional customers into frequent buyers. When they can’t engineer a better taste (as in the French-fry-lab digression of Fast Food Nation, a more shocking but less entertaining book), appeals to customers are cooked up just as carefully as flavors concocted in product development to push back on the demonization of sugar, salt, and fat with carefully crafted claims about “natural flavors” and taste profiles.
Salt Sugar Fat’s debunking of campaigns around products like Lunchables and Frosted Mini-Wheats are fairly obvious, but the boardroom dramas among major food manufacturers—opening with a Pillsbury-hosted brainstorming session about the obesity crisis—feel like action sequences from a future Steven Soderbergh movie. Moss goes broad as well as deep: A chapter on cheese bounces between the U.S. government’s role in dairy surplus, a Dutch study on the psychology of “invisible fats” (present in food but not detected in taste), and the lament of Cheez Whiz’s creator upon finding out his brainchild no longer contains real cheese. Wedged in the middle: the author’s statement, “There is no nonfat cheese worth eating.”
True as that is, that throwaway line represents the essential ambivalence in his argument: Moss’ book is a double-barreled exposé, but it struggles with the middle ground between holding giant corporations like Cargill and General Foods accountable and admitting that, since these businesses chase sales, Americans increasingly buy their unholy inventions, and any unilateral decision to dissuade consumers boomerangs back onto the company attempting it. Similarly, Moss holds that the FDA’s complicity in Americans’ deteriorating health goes beyond safety to a broader lack of concern for our consumption patterns, but without compelling evidence that top-down protection measures work—like the recently invalidated New York City soda ban—his call-to-action stalls. The strongest takeaway from Salt Sugar Fat is that CEOs of major food companies don’t eat their products, so why should you? Indeed, Moss’ best examples of behavior change come from some of his former product leads, including a former president of Coca-Cola now pitching baby carrots as the next great junk food. But CEOs alone can’t fix the public-health issues Moss isolates as if they were irrevocable.