March 21, 2013

BOOKS: It's hard to digest

By JESSICA GRESKO Associated Press

By JESSICA GRESKO
Associated Press

A can of Coke contains roughly nine teaspoons of sugar. Lunchables were created as a way to revive a flagging interest in bologna. People like chips that snap with about four pounds of pressure per square inch.

Those are just some of the nuggets of information Michael Moss feeds readers in his new book about the food industry, “Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us.” But while the book is sprinkled with food facts, Moss doesn’t just want to entertain. Instead, he systematically shows readers how processed food makers manipulate their goods to get consumers to buy, often at the expense of their health.

Moss takes readers on a grocery store tour through the lens of three key ingredients: salt, sugar and fat. By the time he’s done, a host of iconic American products, from Oreos to Hot Pockets and spaghetti sauce to soda, don’t look so appetizing.

Moss goes the distance, literally, in researching the tactics companies use to create craving for their products. In Libertyville, Ill., he inspects the cheese in the refrigerator of a former cheese expert with Kraft. In Hopkins, Minn., he visits the headquarters of one food industry supplier that sells 40 different types of processed salt, one that’s perfect for popcorn to others used in soups and cheese. And at a noted food lab in Philadelphia, he watches a 6-year-old down a series of different vanilla puddings to determine her perfect sweetness level, something called her “bliss point.”

Along the way, Moss meets tastemakers from former leaders at Coca-Cola and Frito-Lay to the creators of Cheez Whiz and instant pudding.

What he learns is enough to give readers serious indigestion. Companies often add salt to products rather than fresh herbs, which have the same effect, because it’s cheaper. Coca-Cola says it won’t market to kids under 12, but the company targets them anyway by advertising at amusement parks and sports venues. One ice cream maker cites scientific research that “ice cream makes you happy,” but even the scientist who did the study sheepishly downplays the results.

Moss, a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter, is at his best when he’s acting like a journalist: talking to people, sifting through and explaining documents, and writing with finger-licking flair. There are places, however, when he can feel like a lecturer repeating his salt, sugar, fat mantra until you want to scream: “I get it!”

Moss doesn’t really offer solutions for getting companies to produce healthier products. The companies argue they’re producing what Americans want, and Americans seem to agree by continuing to buy them. In the end, his message is about personal responsibility. We’re the ones who decide what we put in our shopping carts — and in our mouths.

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