Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us

by Michael Moss

Read: 11/2013


Quite possibly the most important book I read in 2013. Part nutrition, part science, and part policy exposé. To put it simply, processed food companies are using salt, sugar, and fat to engineer food to be addictive. Quite literally, salt, sugar, and fat are to processed as foods as nicotine is to cigarettes. And this should be no surprise, many of the major food companies are now owned by tobacco companies! It's the same strategy at play: design a product that is addictive and obscure the truth about the health of that product. Why doesn't the government do something about this? Unforunately, they are: the USDA is actively promoting the consumption and subsidizing the production of these unhealthy foods. Forget health insurance, if America was serious about health, we need to start with the USDA. My only criticism of this book is that its a bit long-winded. Ultimately, this is a very enlightening read that will change the way you see a grocery store.


More than half of American adults were now considered overweight, with nearly one-quarter of the population—40 million adults—carrying so many extra pounds that they were clinically defined as obese. Among children, the rates had more than doubled since 1980, the year when the fat line on the charts began angling up, and the number of kids considered obese had shot past 12 million. (It was still only 1999; the nation’s obesity rates would climb much higher.)

Willett said. “First, the actual processing has stripped away the nutritional value of the food. Most of the grains have been converted to starches. We have sugar in concentrated form, and many of the fats have been concentrated and then, worst of all, hydrogenated, which creates trans-fatty acids with very adverse effects on health.”

First came a quote from a Yale University professor of psychology and public health, Kelly Brownell, who had become an especially vocal proponent of the view that the processed food industry should be seen as a public health menace: “As a culture, we’ve become upset by the tobacco companies advertising to children, but we sit idly by while the food companies do the very same thing. And we could make a claim that the toll taken on the public health by a poor diet rivals that taken by tobacco.”

Children had become especially vulnerable. Excessive weight among kids went from double to triple the rate it had been in 1980, when the trend began to surface. Diabetes was up, too, and not just in adults—doctors had begun spotting the early signs of this debilitating disease in young children. Even gout, an exceedingly painful and rare form of arthritis once dubbed “the rich man’s disease” for its associations with gluttony, now afflicted eight million Americans.

Nutrition science is so notoriously mushy that blaming even a fraction of our cancer on processed foods requires a leap I am not comfortable making. Food studies don’t have the rigor of the double-blind randomized trials that are the norm in drug company research, and blaming any single food product for our health troubles is particularly fraught. Yet here they were, linking their own products to a significant part of the country’s health troubles, from diabetes to heart disease to cancer.

The E. coli starts in the slaughterhouses, where feces tainted with the pathogen can contaminate the meat when the hides of cows are pulled off. Yet many of the biggest slaughterhouses would sell their meat only to hamburger makers like Cargill if they agreed not to test their meat for E. coli until it was mixed together with shipments from other slaughterhouses.

To make a new soda guaranteed to create a craving requires the high math of regression analysis and intricate charts to plot what industry insiders call the “bliss point,” or the precise amount of sugar or fat or salt that will send consumers over the moon.

Any improvement to the nutritional profile of a product can in no way diminish its allure, and this has led to one of the industry’s most devious moves: lowering one bad boy ingredient like fat while quietly adding more sugar to keep people hooked.

As powerful as they are, salt, sugar, and fat are just part of the industry’s blueprint for shaping America’s eating habits. Marketing is a full partner to the ingredients.

Moreover, the government has grown so cozy with food manufacturers that some of the biggest industry coups would not have been possible without Washington’s help. When consumers tried to improve their health by shifting to skim milk, Congress set up a scheme for the powerful dairy industry through which it has quietly turned all that unwanted, surplus fat into huge sales of cheese—not cheese to be eaten before or after dinner as a delicacy, but cheese that is slipped into our food as an alluring but unnecessary extra ingredient. The toll, thirty years later: The average American now consumes as much as thirty-three pounds of cheese a year.

They’ve discovered that the brain lights up for sugar the same way it does for cocaine.

This relationship began in 1985, when R. J. Reynolds bought Nabisco, and reached epic levels a few years later when the world’s largest cigarette maker, Philip Morris, became the largest food company by acquiring the two largest food manufacturers, General Foods and Kraft. A trove of confidential tobacco industry records—81 million pages and growing—opened to public viewing by the states’ legal settlement with the industry reveals that top officials at Philip Morris were guiding the food giants through their most critical moments

Bludgeoned by media attacks and the public’s growing concern about smoking, the company privately warned and prepared its food executives to deal with similar bloody battles over the heart of their operations: namely, the salt, sugar, and fat.

Sugar not only sweetens, it replaces more costly ingredients—like tomatoes in ketchup—to add bulk and texture. For little added expense, a variety of fats can be slipped into food formulas to stimulate overeating and improve mouthfeel. And salt, barely more expensive than water, has miraculous powers to boost the appeal of processed food.

Take more than a little salt, or sugar, or fat out of processed food, these experiments showed, and there is nothing left. Or, even worse, what is left are the inexorable consequences of food processing, repulsive tastes that are bitter, metallic, and astringent. The industry has boxed itself in.

In the end, that is what this book is about. It will show how the makers of processed foods have chosen, time and again, to double down on their efforts to dominate the American diet, gambling that consumers won’t figure them out.

The first thing to know about sugar is this: Our bodies are hard-wired for sweets.

Scientists are now finding taste receptors that light up for sugar all the way down our esophagus to our stomach and pancreas, and they appear to be intricately tied to our appetites.

On average, we consume 71 pounds of caloric sweeteners each year. That’s 22 teaspoons of sugar, per person, per day.

When he did just that, when he gave his rats all they wanted, he saw their appetite for sugar in a new light. They loved it, and this craving completely overrode the biological brakes that should have been saying: Stop. The details of Sclafani’s experiment went into a 1976 paper that is revered by researchers as one of the first experimental proofs of food cravings.

Food technicians typically refer to the bliss point privately when they are perfecting the formulas for their products, from sodas to flavored potato chips.

“Humans like sweetness, but how much sweetness? For all ingredients in food and drink, there is an optimum concentration at which the sensory pleasure is maximal. This optimum level is called the bliss point. The bliss point is a powerful phenomenon and dictates what we eat and drink more than we realize.”

We don’t even have to eat sugar to feel its allure. Pizza will do, or any other refined starch, which the body converts to sugar—starting right in the mouth, with an enzyme called amylase.

For instance, it wasn’t enough for food to have an attractive taste, they found. To be really enticing, these products had to be loaded with sugar and fat. Only these two ingredients, along with salt, seemed to have the power to excite the brain about eating.

Sweetened drinks made his rats more hungry, not less.

One thing, however, has become perfectly clear in recent years. The overconsumption of sugar in solid foods or drinks has increasingly been tied to the obesity epidemic, which has only grown more dire. Overeating is now a global issue. In China, for the first time, the people who weigh too much now outnumber those who weigh too little.

From the late 1800s through the 1940s, the cereal sold by Post—along with those of the other big national brands—had been crisped and flaked and puffed but only modestly sweetened, if at all... That all changed, quite suddenly, in 1949, when Post became the first national brand to sell a sugar-coated cereal.

By now, though, many cereal makers were not only adding sugar, they had made it their single biggest ingredient, pushing the levels past 50 percent.

Bloomquist said that people mostly associated orange juice with vitamin C, not all the other nutrients the lab technicians were trying to add to their synthetic drink, and vitamin C, as luck would have it, was the one nutrient the technicians could add without hurting the taste.

To compete with the home-cooking skills being taught by Betty Dickson and the other home economics teachers, the industry wielded its very own Betty to preach the creed of convenience. Her name was Betty Crocker, and she quickly became one of the most famous women in America, notwithstanding the fact that she was entirely fake. Betty Crocker had been invented by the manager of the advertising department at Washburn Crosby, which later became General Mills.

“The idea was to be in all those places where these special moments of your life took place,” Dunn continued. “Coke wanted to be part of those moments. That was, if not the most brilliant marketing strategy of all time, probably one of the best two or three.

In nutrition circles, where the causes of obesity are discussed, there is no single product—among the sixty thousand items sold in the grocery store—that is considered more evil, more directly responsible for the crisis than soda.

Roger Enrico, the CEO of PepsiCo, was the first to let slip that, in reality, the Great Soda War caused neither company to shed much blood. “If the Coca-Cola Company didn’t exist, we’d pray for someone to invent it,” he wrote in his 1986 autobiography, The Other Guy Blinked. “You see, when the public gets interested in the Pepsi-Coke competition, often Pepsi doesn’t win at Coke’s expense and Coke doesn’t win at Pepsi’s. Everybody in the business wins.

“Sixty percent of supermarket purchase decisions are completely unplanned,” the Coke study says. “Anything that enables the shopper to make a faster, easier, better decision” will help spur these unplanned purchases.

Thanks to its acquisitions of General Foods and Kraft, ten cents of every dollar that Americans spent on groceries now belonged to Philip Morris.

Fat has a final trait, however, that makes it even more essential than sugar in processed foods. Fat doesn’t blast away at our mouths like sugar does; by and large, its allure is more surreptitious.

Their brain circuitry lit up just as brightly for the fat as it did for the sugar.

The “2 percent” labeling may lead to you to believe that 98 percent of the fat is removed, but in truth the fat content of whole milk is only a tad higher, at 3 percent.

“But there was no bliss point, or break point, for fat,”

Cheese has become the single largest source of saturated fat in the American diet, though it is hardly the only culprit. Day in and day out, Americans on average are exceeding the recommended maximum of fat by more than 50 percent.

It wasn’t just milk that the government subsidized, either. It protected the milkfat as well, since the dairy industry couldn’t be expected to just toss the fat away and remain financially healthy. This had a consequence. With the cows making more milk than anyone wanted to drink and the milk that people did want to drink being stripped of its fat, the industry devised an ingenious solution: It started turning all that unwanted milk and extracted milkfat into something else. It started turning it into cheese.

In 1983, a sympathetic Congress devised another solution. Cows weren’t the problem, the elected officials decided, not even the modern supercharged cow. The problem was the consumer, who had caused this whole surplus problem to start with. The people simply weren’t drinking enough milk, so Congress created a system to boost the consumption of dairy products.

Where Americans, on average, were eating 11 pounds of cheese a year in 1970, they were up to 18 pounds in 1980, 25 pounds by 1990, 30 pounds in 2000, and 33 pounds by 2007, when the rates dipped in the recession before resuming their surge.

In fact, the biggest deliverers of saturated fat—the type of fat doctors worry about—are cheese and red meat.

the panel also stressed that saturated fat was partly responsible for another health epidemic: type 2 diabetes, the kind caused by poor diet. The latest estimates were that 24 million Americans had type 2 diabetes, with another 79 million people having pre-diabetes.

“If you really want people to reduce solid fat intake, you’ve got to talk about reducing consumption of red meat, consumption of cheese, ice cream, and other products like that,” Willett said. “That needs to be said clearly."

in measuring the effects that fat has on the brain. Because fat is so energy dense—it has twice the calories of sugar—the brain sees fat in food as the body’s best friend. The more fat there is in food, the more fuel the body can have for future use by converting the fat to body fat.

A little bit of sodium in the diet was essential to good health. The problem was, Americans were eating so much salt they were getting ten times—even twenty times—the amount of sodium the body needed. This was also far more than it could handle. In large amounts, sodium pulls fluids from the body’s tissues and into the blood, which raises the blood volume and compels the heart to pump more forcefully. The result: high blood pressure.

Salt, the authors concluded, was similar in this way to “sex, voluntary exercise, fats, carbohydrates and chocolate, in its possessing addictive qualities.”

when people start feeling hungry, they are not seeking the primary benefit of food, the calories needed to keep them alive. Rather, they are responding to the body’s signal that it does not ever want to be put in the position of needing to eat. Most people in America never feel true hunger pain, the gut-wrenching result of being starved for nutrition.

Each year, food companies use an amount of salt that is every bit as staggering as it sounds: 5 billion pounds.

In the world of processed foods, salt is the great fixer. It corrects myriad problems that arise as a matter of course in the factory. Cornflakes, for example, taste metallic without it.

Foods do not even have to taste salty for salt to be critical to their success, the company noted. “The ability of salt to enhance other flavors and/or mask objectionable ones (e.g., bitterness) in foods that do not necessarily taste salty is more important.

Yet, for people at least, there’s hope when it comes to salt. Addiction to salt, it turns out, can be readily reversed. All that is needed is to stop eating processed foods for a while. reducing their intake of salt by even half a teaspoon a day, this alone would prevent 92,000 heart attacks, 59,000 strokes, and 81,000 deaths, saving the country $20 billion in health care and other costs.

They are knowingly designed—engineered is the better word—to maximize their allure.

The most crucial point to know is that there is nothing accidental in the grocery store. All of this is done with a purpose.

They may have salt, sugar, and fat on their side, but we, ultimately, have the power to make choices. After all, we decide what to buy. We decide how much to eat.