by Michael Moss
In America, one in three adults and one in five kids is obese. Twenty-six million people in the country suffer from diabetes. Every year, these numbers rise, begging the question Why? The answer seems obvious: people are eating too much salt, sugar and fat. Michael Moss investigates not the effect of these ingredients, for that is pretty well known, but its major source, processed food, and how processed foods became such an integral part of the American diet. The successful manipulation of the American public through marketing by brands like Nestle, Kraft, Coca-Cola, and others is fascinating, as is the extensive lab work done by food scientists to alter and recreate flavors with ever cheaper ingredients. Worse, the addictive qualities of the food – frequent buyers are referred to as “heavy users” within the industry – is exploited amongst the people in America who need healthy alternatives most. As compelling as it is horrifying, Michael Moss' exploration of the hidden world of processed food makes it impossible to look at supermarket shelves in the same way.
I'm not someone who eats with particular regard to health, but the more I read, the more I found myself looking at boxed and canned foods with horror. For example, I never use table salt, and if I were to guess I thought that my salt consumption must be fairly low for that very reason. As Moss reveals, the salt in most American diets comes not from the shaker but from the food itself, placed there to mask less savory flavors and preserve food for long periods of time. Salt and sugar are not just in obviously processed foods like boxed Kraft Macn 'n' Cheese, but in things that I would consider “ingredients”, like raw meat. So as I sat there, considering how to avoid additives, I felt completely lost. Short of going out and killing my own chickens, or going completely vegan, what can I do?
One of the things that Moss addresses in the book is that many Americans, like me, don't know how to cook anymore because we've become addicted to the easiness of processed food. Take, for example, pudding or jello. Give me a box of instant pudding and I will have a tasty dessert on the table in no time. But assign me the task of creating pudding from scratch, and I will just stare at you blankly. I haven't the foggiest idea where to begin! I also don't know how to clean a fish, since I buy filets already cut up by the store. I can't butcher a chicken or a cow, because I always buy the pieces prepackaged. But food is the fuel that drives human life – shouldn't I know a little bit more about it?
That's when the insidious marketing of food companies come in. They'll promote a product that contains “fruit juice” when in actuality the only fruit in the drink or food is the sugars, which were refined from pear juice into a sweetener. Many of the marketing plans used by these companies when I was growing up in the 1990s were adapted from cigarette campaigns - and we all know how destructive those ads were.
I found this book to be very eye-opening. I know that processed food is bad, but like many people I just turn a blind eye to it because I don't really want to think about it. After reading Salt Sugar Fat, I can't stop thinking about it. I want to eat healthier. But herein lies trouble. I don't have time to or the space to maintain a garden. I'm currently living in an isolated town where the only grocery stores within an hour's drive are two gas station mini-marts. The stipend I live on is $75.00 a week. I don't know how to fix my diet. And this is the book's biggest flaw; after raising awareness of the history of food production/manipulation and establishing beyond refute that American has a problem, Moss offers no real solutions. Perhaps that's too much to expect of him, since he's an investigative reporter and not a nutritionist. But after reading nearly four hundred pages about how many of the foods in my diet are terrible for me because they've been engineered to maximize addiction to flavor with cheap ingredients that are not healthy, I would appreciate some guidance on what to do next instead of despair at the corrupted state of grocery stores shelves.
Well, I guess I have Michael Pollan for that. Now might be a good time to re-read The Ominvore's Dilemma before my frustration with food fades and I sink back into the world of prepackaged food.
4 out of 5 stars
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Peeking into the archives...today in:
2012: The Haunted Mansion Vol. 1 edited by Jennifer Guzman
2011: Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
2010: News: Press “Pause” on the Piranha
2009: Random Ranting: Magazine Subscriptions
2008: Women of the Bible: Abigail's Story by Ann Burton