Engineering an obesity epidemic

Salt Sugar Fat, by Michael MossHow would you react if I told you it wasn’t your fault you’re fat?

Not entirely, anyway. Not the way that the medical profession or society at large would have you believe.

At least part of your spare tire — and the cause of the obesity epidemic generally — is because the processed food industry has engineered it for their own needs. That is the central theme of Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. This comprehensive look at the food industry by Michael Moss is a brilliant bit of journalism.

Through the manipulation of the key ingredients of sugar (which our brain reacts to in ways that are similar to cocaine), fat (which we’re hard-wired to crave) and salt, the processed food industry has beefed up their own profits while increasing the gross tonnage of the population at large.

Of course, it’s the profit motive that drives the industry, not some evil desire to turn us all into Fat Albert. Moss’s examination of the industry is at times extremely positive. It’s clear that he admires the creativity, ingenuity and business acumen of many of the central players in this drama that is promising to shorten the life spans of our children. His reportage is scrupulous, fair, and peppered with insight. I’m not surprise he’s already won a Pulitzer. He should get one for this book too.

At times the book seems repetitive, but that is a minor flaw, given how comprehensive and wide-ranging his reportage into this secretive industry is, and how generally readable the narrative is.

The other major theme that I pulled out of the book is that while the food giants have hooked us on sugar, salt and fat, they have also hooked themselves on the profits those key ingredients generate. They are going to fight tooth and Tootsie-roll too keep our foods laden with them, and work against any efforts to make their foods more healthy. And now that the North American markets are saturated (pun intended), they’re looking to other countries. I found one of the anecdotes about an ex-Coke executive walking around a bario in Brazil kind of heart-breaking and enraging at the same time.

“The people here need a lot of things, but a Coke isn’t one of them.”

Yet the company has created smaller serving bottles for poor neighborhoods in countries like Brazil, so that everyone can afford the 20-cents they need to get a taste of “the real thing.”

While the book is informative, it is not a self-help book. There are no prescriptions for how to use this information to save your own waistline, except for the obvious one:

If your food was made by a food processing company, you probably shouldn’t be eating it!

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