What makes Michael Moss’s book exceptional is not the fact that it is extremely well-researched (which it is), nor that it is very well written (it’s that too), nor that it is comprehensive (which it also appears to be). No, what makes “Salt Sugar Fat” a book you should buy right now is that it is stunningly fair. This would be an admirable feat on any topic, but for food – that insanely broad category that covers sustenance, employment, heritage, economics, politics and more – it is almost unbelievable. Indeed, I did not believe it until I read it myself.
Because the fact is that the story of our food is not simply the tale of big companies trying to poison us for fun and profit. Nor is it the story of lazy morons stuffing themselves with Doritos so they can sue corporate fat cats. It is far more nuanced and layered, and as anyone who solves problems for a living knows, understanding the problem correctly is the first step towards creating a legitimate solution for it.
Moss begins with our bodies. For it is important to understand that for thousands of years our bodies sought out fat and sugar because they are concentrated energy – and very hard to come by. For centuries the only way to get them was by killing an animal with handmade tools or by finding some convenient, non-poisonous berry bushes (tough work in winter). And the situation didn’t get better over time; things with sugar in them have a tendency to decay quickly and things with fat in them – like animals – tend to be really expensive, labor intensive, and even dangerous to keep around.
But with World War Two we discovered we could manufacture foods that provided what our bodies craved virtually on-demand – and in formulations that our ancestors would never been able to imagine. You want to make Thomas Jefferson’s head explode, don’t show him an airplane or a cell phone – take him to a Piggly-Wiggly packed with Pringles and Lunchables and Oreos. Ka-boom.
But that’s not the whole story. For we may be junkies – indeed, junkies descended from generations of junkies – but there are pushers as well, even if we don’t call them that.
Companies in the food industry are in business to make money. And they make their decisions – like any business – based on what their customers buy. Take out the sugar and fat and people don’t buy. Take out the salt, and the food that they have built the industry on becomes almost inedible. It may not be nice that we like to stuff our faces with this crap, but the fact is, we do stuff our faces with this crap. And when it disappears in one place, we – not unlike our Neanderthal forebears – will seek it out elsewhere.
So imagine you’re running a multi-million dollar company that employs tens of thousand of people. You can take all the fat and sugar and salt out of your products, but you know that no one will buy them if you do. Are you still gonna do it? And if so, why?
Which means the food companies are as addicted to sugar, salt and fat as the rest of us are.
The crazy thing about all this is that American companies actually did something sort of miraculous. They built foods that solved the two most pressing problems food had always had, problems that reached something of a crescendo in the first half of the 20th century. How could you make foods that would last? That wouldn’t go bad in a truck in hundred degree heat on a highway in Oklahoma or as they sat for six months in a warehouse in Queens? And the second problem? How could you make them fit into the rapidly changing lifestyles of consumers – in this case, where Dads were coming home from the war and Moms were coming home from the factories. Where kids weren’t growing up on rural farms, but in suburbs with refrigerators in the kitchens and grocery stores down the block.
We wanted these foods because they solved problems for us that had plagued us for centuries – culturally, economically, societally. But they were designed for the specific problems they solved. As we changed, and our priorities changed, those solutions, like a suit of clothes we looked great in thirty years ago, didn’t fit us any more.
That doesn’t make them bad. And it doesn’t make us bad. It just means we have to find solutions that fit us now. And “Salt Sugar Fat” is the first real step in that direction.