Thursday, January 9, 2014

Book Review: Salt, Sugar, Fat

Next up for review is Salt, Sugar, Fat: How The Food Giants Hooked Us. The Author, Michael Moss, is a Pulitzer Prize Award winning investigative reporter for the New York Times.

Salt, Sugar, Fat is an inside look at everything the food companies have done to addict us to their products and the role this has played in the obesity epidemic. The writer, Michael Moss, interviewed dozens of food scientists, marketing directors, and executives from the processed food industry. What he learned was staggering. The book, obviously enough, is broken down into 3 sections: salt, sugar, and fat.  The roles that each of these ingredients play in the addictive nature of processed foods is described in detail. The book is a bit long at 347 pages, but is very well written and researched. I truly enjoyed reading it.

5 Things I Really Liked About Salt, Sugar, Fat
1) I was stunned to learn about the complexity of “bliss point” research. The bliss point is the exact combination of fat, sugar, and salt that makes processed snack treats irresistible and highly addictive. Nothing is by accident, the research is conducted by PhD scientists who fully understand the addictive properties of these ingredients. The origins of this research is fascinating. In the 1960’s, a graduate student was trying to fatten up some lab rats for a study on the metabolic effects of obesity. No matter how much of their natural food the student fed to the rats, they wouldn’t gain weight. Their body shut down their hunger when they had enough. One day as a treat, he dropped in a couple of fruit loops and the rats went nuts! They couldn’t get enough. He found the answer to his problem. By feeding the rats sweets like chocolate and cookies, they would keep eating until they became obese. The sugar overwhelmed the rat’s natural defense mechanisms to weight control. It was not long until the food companies caught on.

2) It was really interesting that most of the executives interviewed completely avoided their company’s products and ate quite prudently. Many of these executives regret their role in formulating and marketing products that have contributed to the obesity epidemic.

3) I love how the book examines the controversial issues of this topic. For example:               1) Corporate profit vs. consumer health. 2) The consumer’s personal choice to pick unhealthy foods vs. the expertly designed bliss point research that may take that choice away because of the addictive nature of those foods. 3) Are the food companies just giving consumers what they want or are they driving them to eat more of the wrong food with scientific research. There are no easy answers to these questions but we need to think about them.

4) The salt chapter was really well done. I found the case study of Finland to be fascinating. In the late 1970’s, Finland was consuming huge amounts of salt and had epidemics of hypertension, heart disease, and stroke. In fact, men from Finland had the highest rates of cardiovascular disease in the world. Finland’s public health authorities took action by going after the manufacturers. Any food item that exceeded a certain amount of salt was stamped with the words “High Salt Content”. They also began a public health education campaign to reduce salt consumption. The results were striking. By 2007, salt consumption in Finland had been reduced by one-third and deaths from heart disease and stroke were cut by 80%! Why aren’t we doing this?

5) Another thing I learned is that sugar, salt, and fat add a lot more to a product than just taste. For example, salt adds color, aroma, texture, consistency, and mouth feel to a processed food. Another example is that when fat is reduced in a food, sugar is added to reduce bacterial growth. I did not know this. The truth of the matter is that fat, sugar, and salt preform other duties in these processed foods. Reducing them by a significant amount can really change a product. The book details several producers that reduced levels of these additives and sales dropped significantly because the product looked or tasted funny. This adds another level to this complex problem.

Is Salt, Sugar, Fat Worth Reading?
Absolutely! I really enjoyed this book.  It takes a very thorough look at how the food companies have contributed to the obesity epidemic. This is a tough problem to solve, but it needs to be figured out. This book affirms 2 things I have been telling my clients for the past 15 years:

1) Any time you eat a processed food, or at a restaurant, keep in mind that the goal of the creator of that food is to make it taste good. Sugar, salt, and fat is how they do it.

2) To truly be successful in changing your diet, you have to eat the vast majority of your meals at home with fresh, home-made ingredients. Save your restaurant and fast food meals for the few times a week where you allow yourself to cheat.

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