Posted by & filed under Book Review, Food Philosophy.

When I heard New York Times reporter Michael Moss talking about his new book — Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us — on NPR a couple months ago, I was stunned by a simple realization: my palate has been deliberately manipulated, and the things I sometimes crave are not necessarily of my own natural liking. I had always assumed it was just a sign of poor willpower that I occasionally succumb to cravings for foods that I know are unhealthy, unwholesome or just plain gross on general principle (an ice-cold Coke, shelf-stable Ranch dressing or those evil orange Cheetos puffs, for example). The NPR interview was jarring, but it also made me incredibly curious: why do I crave those tastes when most of the time I crave healthy, fresh foods? And just how exactly do they get me to want it in the first place?

In Salt, Sugar, Fat, food journalist Moss chronicles the rise of the processed food industry over the past four decades and explains how by finely titrating (and steadily increasing) the levels of salt, sugar and fat in everything from pasta sauce to cookies to frozen vegetables, neuroscience and chemistry now play as big a role as marketing does to drive not only profit and consumption, but the national obesity epidemic as well.

Drawing from industry documents and insider interviews, Moss picks the industry apart by examining tactics such as marketing that promotes false benefits (this cereal helps kids perform better in school!), targeting the “heavy users” that carry a brand, (the top 20% of Coca Cola drinkers consume 80% of the product), and the sophisticated methods by which the processed food giants scientifically calibrate measures of enjoyment to devise products that are irresistible.

Forget focus groups and user opinion panels. Today’s consumer food testers get brain MRIs while tasting products with various formulations so researchers can understand exactly what precise effect each ingredient is having. The purpose of it all is to find the “bliss point,” the point at which the brain is optimally happy about what it is experiencing.

By manipulating the ratios of salt, sugar and fat to deliver optimum pleasure to the brain, the food giants found they could hook consumers on the chemical experience in much the same way the tobacco companies did with nicotine. Exactly like that, in fact. To wit, from 1988 to 2007, Marlboro-making tobacco giant Phillip Morris owned Kraft Foods – purveyor of the perfectly plastic and impossibly melty “cheese food product” Velveeta and the sodium and fat-laden Lunchables, among other massively popular but unhealthy brands.

But fresh from the huge public relations disaster of the massive tobacco industry lawsuits and with mounting public concern about processed foods and healthy eating in the early 2000s, the folks at Phillip Morris were in the perfect position to see the obesity epidemic heading for Kraft like a Mack (and cheese) truck.

“As Philip Morris came under pressure for nicotine and cigarettes, it eventually started looking at the food divisions in light of the emerging obesity crisis,” writes Moss. “And there were moments in these internal documents where Philip Morris officials were saying to the food division, ‘You guys are going to face a problem with salt, sugar, fat in terms of obesity of the same magnitude, if not more than [what] we’re facing with nicotine right now. And you’ve got to start thinking about this issue and how you’re going to deal with that.’ ”

So deal with it they did. Or at least they tried to. One of the most fascinating aspects of this book is Moss’ narrative of how Kraft broke ranks with the processed food industry and proactively donned the mantle of corporate responsibility for obesity. In 2003, Kraft stepped up and genuinely worked to change the direction the company was going. It created an anti-obesity team and reformulated its products to reduce calories, sodium, sugar and fat. To discourage overeating, it reduced package sizes and changed its labels to show the total calories in a package, not just the notoriously obfuscatory number of calories per serving. It also set caps on the amount of salt, sugar and fat that its existing and future products could contain.

That was all perfectly heretical stuff in processed-food land, and consumers didn’t respond too favorably either. Messing with the finely honed bliss point of beloved products to make them healthier, it seems, created unmet expectations for consumers. The company’s reward for its newly found sense of conscience was declining sales, loss of investor confidence and the ultimate sell-off of Kraft in 2007.

While some of the positive changes that Kraft initiated are still around today, a trip through the grocery store isles leaves no doubt that the processed food giants have redoubled their efforts to sell unhealthy foods that they systematically and deliberately teach people to want.

Salt, Sugar, Fat helps make sense of why so many of us who should (and DO) know better still sometimes give in to the temptation of processed foods — and why the bad food we love to hate can also be the food we secretly hate to love.