Unfortunately, we are what we eat
CHICAGO -- People don't know how to eat right. Almost from birth, the food we take in and the way it is marketed conspire to make us addicted and even sick. As a result, all but a few of us will face an early grave because of our indulgences.
This is not the thesis of the recently released book "Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us" by Michael Moss. Rather, it's the logical conclusion after years of studying the obesity epidemic, the science of nutrition, and the nature of the politics that surrounds public policy involving food. But Moss' book reinforces this view with an up-to-date narrative buttressed with gems of little-publicized data, confidential corporate memos and interviews with confessional food industry insiders.
After countless hours of reading about our agriculture system, industrial food complex, junk food empires and the physiology of the obese human body, this book could have been snore-inducing for me. Instead, it was terrifying and thought-provoking.
"Salt Sugar Fat" has gotten a lot of media attention, some of it surprisingly lukewarm. One reviewer went out of his way to point out that it was definitely not Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle."
How could it be? "The Jungle" broke new ground. We're no longer a nation of innocents, blind to both the billions that are spent on junk food and the ever-widening waistlines that are the calling card of the Type 2 diabetes epidemic. We are living in a society in which experts are conducting rigorous scientific research on the importance of families eating together and writing advocacy articles about sitting down to eat because the act is quickly becoming extinct.
The reason so many of us willingly turn away from considering our daily life-altering food decisions is that we've fallen into believing that there's nothing we can do, even when there is.
This book won't inspire many of us to think otherwise.
Among the many new factoids I picked up concerns our addiction to salt -- babies are not born with an inherent love for it, as they are with sugar. It's a preference they develop once parents start plying them with the salty cereals (like Cheerios, though few people know that), crackers and other foods they themselves so love.
Another fascinating tidbit answers the question I've been asking myself for years: Why isn't healthful nutrition a part of the standard curriculum in food-preparation classes offered in public schools?
It's a long and fascinating story. As Moss tells it, in the late 1950s, General Foods Corp. started using high-school home economics teachers as a vehicle for promoting highly processed convenience foods. They buttered up the American Home Economics Association (now known as the American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences) with hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants and fellowship programs and sponsored Big Food executives for top leadership posts.
The rest is no less alarming, even to those highly aware of the many scientific and marketing tactics that persuade people to fall in love with convenient fatty, sugary, salty foods. And when I say people I mean even the ones, like myself, who believe that personal responsibility is the No. 1 cure for our nation's failing health. Hey, at the end of the day I'm still someone who grew up eating peanut butter sandwiches with a side of crunchy Cheetos ("one of the most marvelously constructed foods on the planet, in terms of pure pleasure," according to one food scientist) and a tall glass of Coca-Cola -- and I still crave such foods.
The details of the high-tech science used to make foods so tasty as to compel overconsumption -- and the ways that big food companies use their billions in revenue to seduce the young, the already sick and the poor to eat more of their products are explored in depth in the book. As Moss concludes:
"This book is intended as a wake-up call to the issues and tactics at play in the food industry, to the fact that we are not helpless in facing them down. We have choices, particularly when it comes to grocery shopping, and I saw this book, on its most basic level, as a tool for defending ourselves when we walk through those doors."
Read "Salt Sugar Fat" and start defending yourself.
Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.