Michael Moss Takes on the Processed Food Industry in 'Salt Sugar Fat'

For a country that loves to eat as much crap as we do, we sure love to read about how terrible it is for us.

First there was the best-selling Fast Food Nation, which later became a movie. Then came The Omnivore's Dilemma, turning Michael Pollan into the nation's preeminent foodie intellectual. Diet books denouncing one food group or another fly off the shelves.

Now there is Michael Moss' Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. The book was released last week and is already climbing the charts after a much-talked-about excerpt in The New York Times Magazine; it seems poised to become the next big thing.

Moss is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for the Times, and he spent several years researching the corporate food industry—meeting with chemists and other food scientists, visiting corporate headquarters and factories, interviewing retired industry leaders, and delving into archives of formerly confidential records. It's his assertion that the giant food companies like Kraft, General Mills, Nestlé, Coca-Cola, and Mars act not unlike the tobacco giants: They intentionally manipulate the sugar, salt, and fat content of foods to make them addictive, not giving a damn about ill health effects that might follow.

Moss opens his book in 1999, at a secret meeting of all the top food company CEOs at Pillsbury headquarters in Minneapolis. The subject of the meeting is obesity, and a vice-president of Kraft presents a slide show with startling numbers: 25 percent of Americans are obese, including 12 million kids, and social and health costs could rise to $100 billion annually. He suggests that the industry check itself, setting limits on the use of sugar, salt, and fat, and changing its marketing, to prevent class-action lawsuits of the kind that crippled the tobacco industry. The plan is immediately shot down by the CEO of General Mills, Steven Sanger. And that's the end of the discussion.

Over a decade later, the obesity rate continues to skyrocket. (It's up to 35.7 percent of adults in the U.S.) Moss lays much of the blame for this at the feet of those same CEOs, who market sugary products to small children, possibly hard-wiring their growing brains to seek out more sugar for the rest of their lives. He interviews a former Coca-Cola executive—one responsible for the super-sizing of soft drinks and the fast-food combo meals that come with sodas—who had a change of heart after watching Coke being marketed to the poorest children in Brazil. After pushing to cease marketing Coke in public schools, the executive was fired. (He now markets baby carrots.)

Much of what Moss reports isn't exactly news—it's long been known that Coke targets "heavy users," as 80 percent of the world's soda is consumed by 20 percent of the people. It's not a shock that Kellogg's makes up studies touting sugary cereals as healthy, or that "fruit juice concentrate" is actually pure sugar.

But Moss' thoroughness is impressive, even when he's recounting statistics and scenarios that have been reported by others. The sheer quantity of research in Salt Sugar Fat is overwhelming—there's history, confidential memos, advertising campaigns, scientific studies, and lots and lots of horrifying numbers. (Did you know Stacy's Pita Chips have more sodium per one-ounce serving—310 milligrams—than Xtra Flamin' Hot Cheetos—300 milligrams? And that they're targeted to boomers—i.e., the people most in need of watching their sodium intake?)

Salt Sugar Fat is a thought-provoking read. Even if we knew on some level that snacks like Cheez-Its and Oreos were addictive, it can be a little unnerving reading about all the chemistry involved in making them that way. If you can get through this book without being tempted to throw everything in your cabinets out, I'd be surprised.

Still, in the end, Moss' thesis is somewhat lacking. He spends a lot of time on Coke, Kool-Aid, Tang, and Capri Sun, but there's no mention of Starbucks or alcohol—600-calorie mochas and the increasing popularity of syrupy wines and alchopops aren't helping the obesity epidemic, either.

Moss also takes the government to task for subsidizing the dairy industry, leading it to turn to cheese production when sales of whole milk declined—cheese that's now in everything from soup to pizza crusts. Moss criticizes the nation's average annual consumption of cheese—at 33 pounds per person, triple what it was in the early 1970s. But the U.S. is far behind European countries like Greece, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and even Israel in terms of cheese consumption. And all of those countries have much lower rates of obesity.

Moss ends his book comparing the grocery store to a battlefield, "dotted with land mines itching to go off." If you're aware of the land mines, then you can avoid them, he says. That seems overly facile. Even if one avoids all processed foods at Kroger, it's impossible to escape them when eating out—something Americans do more and more often each year (and something Moss also barely mentions). Salt Sugar Fat makes it clear that industry-wide reform is needed. Until that happens, good luck staying healthy.