The ability of food manufacturers to find synergy in the interplay of their key ingredients is not limited to fat and sugar, of course. The true magic comes when they add in the third pillar of processed foods: salt. [Page 264]
I have often told the story about how I usually feel good about the food people are buying when I first walk into the grocery store. Fresh fruits and vegetables are arrayed in bountiful displays and people seem to buying. However, I round the corner and walk into a miasma of boxed dinners—usually Hamburger Helper—that occupy untold linear feet of shelving. These boxes are little more than carbohydrates, salt, and fat. And people have carts full of the stuff. This is the beginning of the fall of human civilization.
If you want to understand why these foods are so prevalent than you need to read Michael Moss’ Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. Point by point he lays out the systematic way that processed foods have been designed and marketed to the primarily American consumer. The scary thread running throughout the book is that food executives understood the food they were selling was garbage, in terms of health, but that the almighty quarterly report demanded that they sell more crap. If you took out the references to common brand names like Oreos or Frosted Flakes you might have been fooled into thinking you were reading a book about the practices of tobacco companies.
Processed foods are vehicles for little more than salt, sugar, and fat—hence the title of the book. More insidious is that these foods are designed to engage our taste buds, pleasure centers, and memories in a biochemical dance that leaves us craving more and more. Really, try and eat one Oreo or a single Dorito. It’s an exercise in willpower that would make a heroin addict blush.
Moss does an excellent job of detailing how sugar and fat dovetail in ever higher quantities to create a bliss point that delivers a caloric time bomb into our guts. So much so that diabetes and other obesity related illnesses threaten to bankrupt what little national health care we have in the U.S.
Salt gets a little bit of short shrift here, but that is because salt is the universal lubricant of modern processed foods. Without copious quantities of this cheap ingredient—so cheap that it barely registers when it is indiscriminately dumped on food products—processed food would gum up the industrial works, taste like cardboard, and smell awful. Without salt you might as well be eating bad MREs.
What is most stunning is that this development was done consciously. As Moss succinctly writes toward the end of the book:
But there is nothing subtle about the products themselves. They are knowingly designed—engineered is the better word—to maximize their allure. Their packaging is tailored to excite our kids. Their advertising uses every psychological trick to overcome any logical arguments we might have for passing the product by. The taste is so powerful, we remember it from the last time we walked down the aisle and succumbed, snatching them up. And above all else, their formulas are calculated and perfected by scientists who know very well what they are doing. The most crucial point to know is that there is nothing accidental in the grocery store. All of this is done with a purpose. [Page 346-7]