If you’ve never read Salt, Sugar, Fat by Michael Moss you better put it on top of your list. It is arguably one of the best books out there detailing the history of the food industry in the United States and how we have become one of the unhealthiest nations in the developed world. And there’s the kicker, it’s not there (the food industry) fault. It’s ours.
The book goes through the influence salt, sugar, and fat have played in the creation and influence of processed foods for the past century. The reasons for the heavy influx of the big 3 into our food supply over 100 years ago are the same reasons today: improving taste and profits. We like things that taste delicious and are cheap. The food industry has played on this longer than Social Security has been around. All the while our waistlines began expanding and the rates of obesity, heart disease, hypertension, high blood pressure, and diabetes have skyrocketed. Granted, we didn’t know exactly what was happening to our health during the first 50+ years but by the mid-20th century we began to take notice. Why didn’t we do anything? Well, when your government regulators who are in charge of protecting and warning us of health dangers have an annual budget of $1.2 million and the food industries lobbyists and marketing companies have an annual budget of $1.2 billion it’s easy to see how the information was buried or, worse, altered to highlight the health benefits!
Some of the biggest takeaways from the book that helped me realize what happened to our food supply are quite simplistic:
One of the biggest changes in American culture was the introduction of women into the workforce on mass. Traditionally, women have been the homemakers and home cookers for the majority of our countries existence. World War II saw a surge in the number of women entering the workforce when millions of men were sent across the Atlantic and Pacific to fight. Once the war ended women didn’t return home. They stayed in the work force but still held the responsibilities of taking care of the home and this included the meals the family ate. These women wanted something that was convenient and quick to prepare while still being a financial provider for the household (yes, men could’ve stepped up the plate but most didn’t….our bad!). The food industry saw this as an opportunity to create foods that met the working moms schedule. Why spend hours slaving away in the kitchen when you could simply pop something into the oven and have food ready at a moments notice? The food industry saw a hole and intended to fill it.
It would do the food industry no good if these “easy-to-prepare” meals tasted like cardboard, which many of them did in the beginning. In order to ensure growth in sales the food industry began pouring money into research facilities and state-of-the-art equipment to determine what exact levels of salt, sugar, and fat were needed to make foods delicious. I cannot begin to go into the incredible details Salt, Sugar, and Fat describes the great lengths the food industry went to determine how much of each of the big 3 effected the taste of food. One extra milligram here or there would make a food a hit or miss. Too many misses and you’re out of business.
Each of the big 3 plays a vital role in the success of the food industry. Take one out and the whole system falls apart. Sugar is needed for its “bliss point” that makes food appetizing. Salt is needed, not only to prolong the life of food, but to enhance the flavor of food as well. Fat provides a consistency that, while enhances the flavor of food, is undetectable. With twice as many calories as sugar, fat is considered the underlying culprit of many health issues today.
Just as women were entering the work force the television started becoming a household commodity. No longer were food companies constrained to the limits of paper ads but now had massive access through the living room via TV. This was the same time frame that home economics was still taught in schools. While there were scores of home economics teachers who fought against the food companies “quick & ready” meals (even they knew these weren’t as healthy as the food they could make) the food industry created the beloved Betty Crocker and hired some of the top home economics teachers to teach classes and demonstrate in showrooms the benefit of “heat-and-serve” meals. Add the commercials food companies created to enhance the allure of food and it was a losing battle for the home economics front. As years passed independent organizations and government agencies sought to regulate the amount, and type, of marketing food companies were permitted, starting with ads towards children.
Only in the last decade have food companies taken it upon themselves to start cutting back on the amount of salt, sugar, and fat they put into our foods. It’s no longer a question of whether or not the food we eat is bad for our health. Even the food industry is starting to admit it and take responsibility. However, for all the blame we can place on the food industry, in the end it is our decision. Take for example Campbell Soup. The company cut back on the amount of salt placed in their soups to help combat the increasing rates of hypertension and high blood pressure. The result? People didn’t like the taste and complained! Campbell, like any smart company, wants to stay in business so they did the only logical thing….they brought the salt levels back up!
If you want to improve your health and let the food industry know we want better, healthier foods then show them with your wallet. Buy fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats and fish, and dairy products with little-to-no alterations. Don’t buy chips, soft drinks, candies, and frozen meals. You have to do a little legwork if you want a healthy body and healthy life. Don’t wait for your doctor to tell you to eat better. You already know if you are. Oh, and those little “treats” you give your self (ex. bag of chips during break on Tuesday, 3 beers on Friday, high calorie brunch and bbq on Sunday) add up! The majority of us are putting on weight every year and it’s all the little cheats that add up. You didn’t put on 20lbs of fat over the last 5-10 years eating too many oranges, so stop lying to yourself. Take it from me. I was fat! It didn’t happen over night and I didn’t lose weight overnight. It has been a 10-year ongoing effort. Learn more. Read more. Stick with a plan. Any diet is better than what you’re eating right now. Make the right choices. Make yourself better!
I’ll leave you with this quote from Michael Moss himself…..
“They (the food industry) may have salt, sugar, and fat on their side, but we, ultimately, have the power to make choices. After all, we decide what to buy. We decide how much to eat.”
STAY FIT MY FRIENDS!