Michael Moss’s New York Times bestselling book Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us is the latest in a long stream of journalistic exposés decrying the state of food and agriculture in America. The work has been met with fawning praise. Although his book melds with the emerging cultural narrative about food, Moss’s book is overwrought.
Moss reveals a shocking secret: food manufacturers diligently and deliberately try to make foods we like to eat; foods that are alluring and tempting. If food companies aren’t doing that I’m not sure why they exist. Martha Stewart, Mark Bittman, and Paula Dean don’t explicitly refer to the science of bliss points in their kitchens but you can bet they intuitively know how much sugar is too little and how much is too much. Their published recipes almost certainly reflect hundreds of attempts to find the ingredient combinations that taste best.
We expect nothing less from food companies, cookbook authors, and restaurant chefs. And we expect nothing less from authors either. Moss and I diligently and deliberately tried to write compelling, page-turning books with alluring covers designed by experts in the New York publishing business to attract consumers and tempt them to buy. We want the pleasure centers of our readers’ brains to light up when we tell a good story or make a compelling turn of phrase.
What is the alternative? Regulate food companies to make un-tasty food?
For all the talk of scientific bliss points and allusions to companies powerfully manipulating our taste buds, Moss’s book inadvertently reveals how little power food companies actually have. They spend hundreds of millions on advertising and promotion to try to convince us to buy their wares. Yet, all the flashy signs, well-crafted brand images, and corporate logos reveal another truth. Without all this stuff, we’d probably just ignore them and their scientifically optimized foods.
There is a key contradiction underlying Moss’s work. In one instance, he asks a food executive, “What if some of these products are so tasty, people can’t resist eating them?” Yet, elsewhere he argues that taste is not a sufficiently powerful allure to keep us coming back. After warning readers of how hard Food Giants work at making great-tasting food, Moss lets us in on a secret: “The selling of food matters as much as the food itself. If not more.” In fact, the allure of the best-selling soft drink “is derived as much from what goes on to the can or bottle than what goes into it.”
Despite their supposed prowess in food science and advertising, Moss barely alludes to the fact that food companies normally fail. Yet, his own statistics, offered in passing, reveals that two-thirds of all new food products fail to survive on the market after the first few months. But, this isn’t a side-line fact. It is key evidence against his argument that food companies are foisting anything they want on gullible consumers.
Narcotic-like, addiction, hooked. These are words that appear repeatedly in Moss’s book. However, calling salt, sugar, and fat addictive is stretching the science to fit an agenda. Is it really surprising to learn that sugar activates reward centers of our brain? Or that ice cream makes us happy? Using the studies cited to claim sugar, salt, and fat are addictive comes dangerously close to being able to call anything pleasurable addictive. If reading a good book or playing baseball with the kids activates a brain reward center, they too, following this line of reasoning, are addictive. The argument is tantamount to demonizing pleasure. It is modern day Puritanism. And it is demeaning to those who suffer from legitimate addictions.
Ultimately, one wonders whether Moss even believes his addition theme is true. He writes of one study in which, after a few days, “the subjects had, in effect, unhooked themselves from salt.” “Unhooked” is a word scarcely uttered in meetings of Alcoholic Anonymous or among ex-smokers.
I suspect Moss and I disagree about the value the average consumer derives from convenience and taste, and as a consequence are likely to have competing conceptions about the normative consequences of the changes in food brought about in the past fifty years and the desirability of government regulation aimed at reversing it. There is, however, one sentiment of Moss’s that I can whole heartedly endorse, and it is his last: “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.”
If you want the Food Giants to sell healthier food, then buy their salads, wraps, and low-fat alternatives. Pointing the finger at Food Giants may sell books but it doesn’t absolve us of the responsibility to choose wisely for ourselves.