I don’t mean to sound like just another prima donna who’s smacking down Americans’ unhealthy eating habits, but a new book by a New York Times Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter, Michael Moss, got my attention. Titled Salt Sugar Fat, Moss states that every year, the average American eats 33 pounds of cheese – triple what we ate in 1970 – and 70 pounds of sugar, which is about 22 teaspoons a day. We also consume 8,500 milligrams of salt a day, twice the recommended amount. These poisonous levels, the author states, come from processed foods.
Moss got the idea for the book while investigating a surge in deadly outbreaks of E. coli in meat. One of his contacts, a microbiologist, suggested that he should look into an even bigger public health hazard – all the salt, sugar and fat that food companies add to their products. These cheap additives mask bitter flavors that develop during the manufacturing process and allow processed foods to sit in warehouses, on grocery shelves and in our kitchens for months.
Salt, sugar and fat also are irresistibly pleasurable to us. Moss describes our obsessive pursuit of the “bliss point” of cereals, snacks, sodas and frozen foods, and food manufacturers’ utter joy in helping us reach it. He exposes popular products like Nestle’s Hot Pocket, a frozen, microwavable calzone-type snack; the pepperoni and three-cheese version, he notes, contains “well over 100 ingredients, including salt, sugar, and fat in several configurations along with six permutations of cheese, from ‘imitation mozzarella’ to ‘imitation cheddar.’” Eating just one of these eight-ounce gut bombs will feed you close to an average adult’s daily limit of saturated fat (10 grams) and sodium (1,500 milligrams), along with nearly six teaspoons of sugar and 600 calories. (No surprise that Nestle, in the Hot Pocket’s nutritional label, defines one serving as half of the calzone. Who eats half of a Hot Pocket?)
“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,” Moss writes. “It’s simply not in the nature of these companies to care about the consumer.”
Including the consumer, Moss notes, who is trying to get meals on the table that meet her family’s busy schedules and picky palates, and who’s on a budget that makes cheap processed food more appealing than, say, fresh produce or ingredients for home-cooked – and salt/sugar/fat-controlled – dishes.
Given those realities, Moss compares the grocery store to a battlefield, “dotted with landmines” of processed foods engineered by giant corporations seeking to capitalize on our salt, sugar and fat addictions. But simply knowing this, the author says, “can be empowering.”
“You can walk through the grocery store and, while the brightly colored packaging and empty promises are still mesmerizing, you can see the products for what they are. You can also see everything that goes on behind the image they project on the shelf: the formulas, the psychology, and the marketing that compels us to toss them into the cart,” he concludes. “They 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.”
Moss’ eye-popping expose has me inspired to continue closely scrutinizing what I feed myself and my family. I’m inspired to continue meal-planning in ways that may take a little more time but allow me to save money – cash I can use in the produce aisle.
So drop that Hot Pocket: What are you doing to detoxify your diet?