Monday, June 3, 2013

Book Review: Salt Sugar Fat by Michael Moss

At long last, I've gotten my paws on Salt Sugar Fat by Michael Moss. There were 80 holds on it ahead of me at the local library and the publisher ignored my requests for a review copy.

I'm not as over-the-top in love with it as I thought I'd be from the interviews with the author when it came out, but it's still a good book. You can get most of the gist of the book by watching an interview with Moss on Democracy Now! instead of reading it.

The book is VERY similar, however, to David Kessler's book The End of Overeating. It's not a duplicate of that one, per se, but it shares a lot of common ideas and themes. Both are exposes of processed foods that provide insider information directly from the industry. Kessler focuses quite a lot on restaurant fare, like Chilis or Cinnabon, whereas Moss focuses entirely on food eaten at home.

What you'll find is, while food companies are extremely scientific at finding the exact amounts of salt, sugar, and fat that people can't resist and then - mostly through trial and error, given how many new products fail - finding products that fly off the shelves. But what likely happens when they fly off the shelves is that we are opening a bag of chips or a box of cookies and eating it in one sitting. That's something Kessler takes on and Moss doesn't, not just why people like eating foods high in salt, sugar, and fat, but why we physically cannot stop eating them.

The book traces the processed food industry's attempts to first find the exact amount of salt, sugar, and fat to make their foods irresistable, and then their difficulties when they try removing them from the food to create healthier processed food. For the most part, "healthier processed food" doesn't work.

It's different for each item. For sugar, people just love sugar - up to a point. They call that the "bliss point." The perfect amount of sugar to make us keep cramming the food in our mouths without maxing out on too much sugar.

Fat is a more complex topic. Fat provides a "mouthfeel" to food, but it also carries flavor. Low-fat versions of fatty foods don't taste good. But Moss focuses this section on two particular foods - beef and cheese, especially processed versions of both - that are chock full of saturated fat. In my opinion, while this is an important subject, he's missing an awful lot of the nuance related to fat. Because some fats are healthy and even essential.

By focusing on saturated fat as the bad fat, he makes it appear that unsaturated fat is the okay fat. But our country is drowning in omega-6 fatty acids, which are polyunsaturated fats. And the more we eschew saturated fats, the more we turn to omega-6s: safflower, sunflower, soybean, peanut, and corn oils. The overeating of omega-6 fatty acids (compared to omega-3s) are a major driver of heart problems. But omega-3s are not shelf-stable, and omega-6s are. Furthermore, omega-3s are often found in foods that aren't very fatty at all, like leafy greens, or in fish. And while eating fish might be healthy, fish oils can't be used in foods without imparting a fishy flavor. There's a whole chapter missing from this book on how the processed food industry is hooked on omega-6s and why they have such a hard time removing them from their products. Yet, Moss doesn't just ignore this, he even cites safflower oil (which is off the charts in omega-6s) as a healthy oil.

The salt section is more interesting. As anyone who has tried to go off processed foods knows, you can recalibrate your body's sensitivity to salt. Soups that once tasted delicious now taste like a salty brine. But salt isn't just used to make processed food taste good - it's also used to mask bad flavors. One of these flavors is called a "warmed over flavor," and it comes from oxidation from reheated meats. The book compares it to eating cardboard. Yes, salt covers this up - but here's my thought: isn't this bad taste your body's way of telling you "don't eat this?" So covering up that bad flavor is overriding natural cues from your body that you are eating something you shouldn't. And that's no good.

All in all, this book proves better than anything else I've read why "healthy processed food" just doesn't work. Not in the cheap way we want it. You can reduce the salt and avoid the warmed over flavor by using fresh herbs like rosemary. Then you're not just covering up the flavor, you're avoiding the oxidation in the first place. But herbs cost more. Making food slowly and doing it the right way just costs more money.

In my kitchen at home, I make shelf stable processed foods I could buy at the store: jams, pickles, sauces, and salsas. And I do it without chemical additives or insane amounts of salt, sugar, and fat. But the ingredients are expensive, and it takes time to make it. That's not the business these processed food companies are in. And to stay in the cheap, convenient, processed food business, they can't do without - or even with less of - their salt, sugar, and fat.

One question I have that the book doesn't answer is: What triggers satiation? What makes our tummies send us the message "You've had enough, it's time to stop eating." That's the message we oughta get from our food, but we aren't.

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