Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Salt Sugar Fat: A Must Read for Anyone Who... Err... Eats Food

Busy times at work for me. But I felt I had to write a quick post on this book which has paved the way back to the salad bar for me. No, I'm not weight-watching any more than I normally do. Like a lot of others, I'm just another person for whom cooking is drowned in an ocean of higher priority chores and who is often thankful to have access to food items that are precooked and ready to eat. But ever since I picked up Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss, I can't seem to walk the grocery aisles the same way I used to. This book tells the story of how those aisles filled up with truckloads of sodas and cheese over the years. It's a brilliant exposĂ© on how the processed food companies maximize their profits by manipulating our tastes buds. But most importantly, no matter how much of a health freak you thought you were, this book is likely to have something new to add to your dietary knowledge base — which you wish you had known all along.  

Salt, sugar, and fat are the foundation of processed food, and the overriding question the companies have in determining the formulations of their products is how much they need of each to achieve the maximum allure.
— The book pretty much revolves around this theme. Like a relic from the pre-agriculture times, our ancient brains still remain wired to crave for maximizing our intake of these three ingredients. The processed food industry, which rose to answer the needs of an increasingly office bound population seeking convenient and ready to eat food items, exploits these cravings in every possible way. What we crave isn't necessarily what our body needs:
...hunger is a poor driver of cravings. We rarely get in the situation where our body and brain are depleted of nutrients and are actually in need of replenishment. Rather ... we are driven to eat by other forces in our lives. Some of these are emotional needs, while others reflect the pillars of processed food: first and foremost taste, followed by aroma, appearance, and texture.
Of the three culprits, sugar and salt have a clear-cut bliss point, which if exceeded the taste does not improve. Whether it's a soda or a (healthy-sounding but not quite healthy) cereal concoction, a lot of the food engineering is aimed at hitting this bliss point. Unlike, salt and sugar, fat does not have a bliss point — the more the merrier! A recurring topic in his book is how these ingredients stimulate the reward centers in our brain in the same way narcotics do:
If sugar is the methamphetamine of processed food ingredients, with its high-speed, blunt assault on our brains, then fat is the opiate, a smooth operator whose effects are less obvious but no less powerful.
Thus, rather aptly, soda and chips are referred to as "crack snacks." When used in the right combination, these three ingredients help boost each other. For example, the heaviest cream tastes better when a little sugar is added. Also, these ingredients can used to mask dearths of one another. This idea is particularly handy for processed food companies while formulating so called "healthier" versions of food items that people are both addicted to and leery of. Thus, reduced fat cookies and ice cream come loaded with extra sugar. Even more alarmingly, special weight-loss or diabetic formulations which are meant to be low-fat and low-sugar comes with huge doses of salt! In addition, the processed food industry is heavily reliant on salt for ensuring longer shelf life, for enhancing certain flavors, for texture and crispiness, and for masking a lot of unpleasant flavors that the processing leads to. Studies have shown that more than three-quarters of the salt people consume come from processed foods! The bad news with salt is that it's bliss point is gradually raised as we get habituated consuming more of it in commonly available processed food items. The good news though is that, it's easy to reset by staying off the same. 

Then of course there is advertising. Unfortunately, the targets are often the most vulnerable segment of the population — kids. And there is the issue of dietary recommendations from USDA being influenced by the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which is turn is largely steered by the food giants. The book also covers the historical backstories of how salt, sugar, and fat came to be industries of their own. I thought the most interesting of these was the one on the rise of the cheese industry that was spurred by the shift toward low fat and skimmed milk and the consequent need for something to do with the milk fat. Ironically, the head honchos of the processed food companies refuse to partake of their own creations, including:
...John Ruff from Kraft, who gave up sweet drinks and fatty snacks; Luis Cantarell from Nestlé, who eats fish for dinner; Bob Lin from Frito-Lay, who avoids potato chips, along with most everything that is heavily processed; Howard Moskowitz, the soft drink engineering whiz who declines to drink soda.
So here we are in the middle of an obesity epidemic. And yet there are no easy ways out. While Moss mentions efforts from the good giants to start (more genuinely) healthy product lines, it is we the consumers who repeatedly choose tasty over healthy! Quoting Robert Lin of Frito-Lay:
“...the food that makes you feel good is the food you want to buy more. There is advertising, but the difference it makes is minor. Ninety percent of it is about making you feel good, and feeling good means tasting good.”
In the short term, the only recourse may be to seize control and "ward off an unhealthy dependence on processed food." And so, while cooking still remains low in my priority list, I suppose I should keep frequenting the salad bar and go raw!

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