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'Salt Sugar Fat': Michael Moss' unholy trinity

A customer pushes a shopping cart past a

A customer pushes a shopping cart past a display of soft drinks at a Dollar General Corp. store in Saddle Brook, New Jersey. Credit: Bloomberg Emile Wamsteker

SALT SUGAR FAT: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, by Michael Moss. Random House, 446 pp., $28.

After E. coli from a burger paralyzed 22-year-old Stephanie Smith, Michael Moss' newspaper story tracing the meat's origins helped win him a Pulitzer Prize in 2010.

The titular villains of Moss' new book, "Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us," aren't much less malign. The three substances are tied to rising obesity, diabetes, hypertension and heart disease. They're also the pillars on which the $1 trillion food-manufacturing industry is built.

Moss, a New York Times reporter, digs into the history, science, commerce and politics behind processed foods and Americans' addiction to them. It's a craving he tracks from lab bench and corporate memo to working moms and the mantra of convenience, from Wall Street's relentless pressure for profit and the feckless regulators in Washington.

Moss makes the digestion of hard facts easier with a keen sense of the telling anecdote and detail. When he interviews the legendary Al Clausi in 2010, 64 years after he started as a food chemist for General Foods, Moss observes a copy of the patent for Jell-O instant pudding hanging in the retiree's office and on a shelf "a toy replica of the trucks that delivered Tang, another one of his iconic inventions."

The book is divided into three main sections, starting with sugar. "There are special receptors for sweetness in every one of the mouth's ten thousand taste buds," all wired to the brain's pleasure zones. Food scientists can determine a product's "bliss point," "the precise amount of sweetness" that makes it most enjoyable.

Competition explains a cereal called Super Orange Crisps that was found in 1975 to have sugar content of 70.8 percent. The susceptibility of kids explains the heavy advertising on weekend daytime TV.

"It's not that food companies are teaching children to like sweetness," Moss writes. "Rather, they are teaching children what foods should taste like. And increasingly, this curriculum has been all about sugar."

Scientists have shown that fat is as potent as sugar in lighting up the brain's pleasure center. One difference between the two is that fat has no bliss point after which the appeal drops.

For the subjects in experiments "with increasingly fatty mixtures" of cream, milk and sugar, the fat "was so pleasing to their brains that they never gave the signal to stop eating."

Combine that with the utility of fat. "The processed food industry relies on it like no other component," Moss writes, and then rolls out a dozen swell functions, such as: "Fat turns listless chips into crunchy marvels, parched breads into silky loaves, drab lunchmeat into savory delicatessen."

Cheese and red meat are the worst culprits for saturated fat. And one reason cheese consumption in the United States has tripled since the 1970s is the government's helping hand. Moss devotes a long chapter to showing how the U.S. Department of Agriculture waffles on nutritional guidance while promoting consumption of meat and cheese.

When hypertension made headlines in the 1980s as the "silent killer," Americans were eating 10 to 20 times the amount of sodium their bodies needed. People continue to crave salt, and processed-food makers oblige them, not least because salt is another useful ingredient. "It makes sugar taste sweeter. It adds crunch to crackers," Moss writes.

The food makers' occasional efforts to reduce salt have been halfhearted and uneven. So you still have the Hungry Man frozen roast turkey dinner, with salt listed nine times among the ingredients for a total of 5,400 milligrams. That's more than two days of the maximum recommended amount.

Moss' 3 1/2 years of labor on the book included immersing himself in the 81 million pages of documents that became available with the 1998 tobacco settlement and offered revelations about the huge food manufacturers -- Kraft, General Foods and Nabisco -- which R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris had owned at different times.

The book is occasionally dense, though leavened with color and humor. The structure, which offers mini-histories of the unholy trinity, lends itself to some repetition and chronological seesawing. The science and history can be fun; the message is anything but.

Don't be put off, though. "Salt Sugar Fat" is a vital document for anyone whose ignorance in the area is proportionate to his waistline.

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