The Taste Bad Conspiracy: Are we the victims of the food industry?
By Diane Cole
Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us
By Michael Moss
Purchase this book on Amazon
Bet you can’t read just one page of Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, the unapologetically unsugarcoated exposé of the processed food industry’s tricks to spur addiction. Although you may not immediately recognize the name of author Michael Moss, you’re probably familiar with his investigative report on pink slime, the controversial ammonia-treated beef trimmings that meat producers are legally allowed to add as cheap filler to lean ground beef. Moss won the Pulitzer Prize for his New York Times series on beef contamination and safety, and his scoop on pink slime started a chain reaction of public concern and outrage that led to a reduction or discontinuation of its use by several companies.
But that story is only part of the larger one that Moss has to tell us about the corporate competition for our taste buds and our resulting ever-expanding tummies. His narrative in Salt Sugar Fat is as gripping as it is unappetizing, describing how the food industry has meticulously researched and orchestrated our cravings for food. In essence, the more sugar, salt, and fat you eat, the more the hedonist part of your brain insists you want. This cycle has contributed to our current, and concurrent, epidemics of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, yet there’s a potential health benefit to discovering these grisly truths about how our taste buds—and our brains’ reward centers—have been systematically studied and manipulated. Put Moss’s volume in your shopping cart, and the next time you travel down the snack-food aisle, those seemingly innocent bags of “light” potato chips will look downright insidious.
Moss opens his chronicle in 1999, at a top-secret meeting of the CEOs of some of the food industry’s largest companies: Nestlé, Kraft, Nabisco, General Mills, Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola, and Mars. Pillsbury executive James Behnke had convened the summit as nothing less than a public health intervention, an attempt to persuade the industry to look at—and moderate—its role in the growing obesity epidemic. After all, the industry’s formula for corporate success involved aggressive marketing of high-calorie, processed convenience foods and sugary beverages whose recipes had been fine-tuned to hook customers on overconsuming.
To be sure, self-interest drove the proposal put forth at this meeting for an industrywide code to tone down advertising, especially to children, and lead a campaign to promote exercise. By playing the “good guys,” these companies could deflect growing public criticism of the sugary cereals marketed to children and head off the possibility of government regulation by regulating themselves. But within minutes of the start of the meeting, it became clear that among its participants, the competitive desire for ever-greater revenue trumped worries over the health dangers of ever-larger waistlines. In the end, the intervention fell flatter than a day-old open can of soda, and the companies returned to business as usual.
That business, Moss shows, relies on three chief ingredients, and they’re as tasty to the palate as they’re pleasingly cheap to the corporate bottom line: salt, sugar, and fat. When served separately and in moderation, none of them is harmful. The difficulty, for health-conscious consumers, arises from the industry practice of heaping on copious amounts in felicitous combinations designed to reach what’s known in the business as the bliss point. According to a food psychologist quoted by Moss, the bliss point is the “optimum concentration at which the sensory pleasure is maximal. . . . [It] dictates that we eat and drink more than we realize.”
To demonstrate how the bliss point can be calculated and computed, Moss takes us inside a taste-testing room at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. There, a charming 6-year-old girl is presented with serving after serving of vanilla puddings, each with a different level of sweetness, and asked to choose which she prefers. Of the two-dozen puddings she tasted, the most mouthwatering to her contained 24 percent sugar. However, other child tasters chose puddings with as much as 36 percent sugar.
That children desire intense sweetness isn’t surprising. “Our bodies are hard-wired for sweets,” Moss tells us early on, adding later that “sugar has few peers in its ability to create cravings.” What’s particularly troubling is the ways in which the food giants have used such taste tests to rationalize adding more and more sugar to kid-oriented foods. They’re merely giving the kids what they want, they argue, and if they don’t provide the desired sugar rush in their products, their rivals will. Additionally, by acclimating children at an early age to expect sugar in every food, the food giants are training them for a lifetime of extra calories, extra pounds, and extra health risks, especially diabetes, which can lead to heart disease and stroke, as well as a likelihood of infection and damage to the kidneys, nerves, and eyes.
Fat is another key contributor to the bliss point, and perhaps the most disturbing one because of its power to enhance taste, provide a creamy “mouth feel,” and hide any lurking off-flavors—all without our brains or tummies signaling that it’s time to stop eating. This under-the-radar quality helps explain the genesis of that immortal Alka-Seltzer antacid ad: “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing!” Now you know why—and how easily—it can happen.