Review Wednesday: Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us

Salt Sugar Fat

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One of the background tasks in my life since I was diagnosed with diabetes is to continually find ways to improve my lifestyle habits and eating. A bit part of the reason I became diabetic was because I was eating badly and neglecting what my body needed to stay healthy.

I am, at my core, an engineer and a geek, so it was natural when I decided to get serious about this to treat fixing my body as an engineering project, and that implies things like tracking metrics and researching topics and technologies to understand how things work and what the best practices are.

The first thing I learned is how much about how the human body operates is not known is insanely large. The second thing I learned is that there is an incredible amount of bullshit out there on the internet between the people who don’t understand but still insist on being experts, and the people who see an opportunity to make money off of those desperate for easy answers to complicated questions.

One thing that needs to be emphasized: there are no magic cookies. There is a lot we don’t know, but also a lot of fascinating research going on. So solving the problems I’d created for myself was something that took time, research, thinking and a  lot of work, and I’ve wandered down many paths that led to dead ends some of the time, but also fascinating side trips as well.

I’ll leave the whole “hacking my body” thing for some other time, but today I wanted to talk about one of the sidetrips I recently took.

One of the biggest changes I had to make to my diet was to wean myself off fast food. At one point I was eating a burger and fries five or size times a week. In case you need a hint: that’s not healthy and I’m still wearing a large chunk of a key side effect of that bad habit.

Despite that, getting away from it was incredibly difficult, and the struggle to get that stuff out of my diet got me wondering why and how those foods were both different from so-called “real” food.

Lots of people will tell you that fast food is bad for you, but very few have a lot of fact behind that assertion, and nobody was really discussing what I was seeing as almost an addictive quality to these foods.

And then I discovered Michael Moss. Moss is a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter for the New York Times, who got curious about the industrialization of food and how it might relate to the global obesity crisis we’re facing.

What came out of that was the book Salt Sugar Fat: Junk Food Engineering. This is a fascinating and carefully researched book that looks into the global industrialized food industry and how the products it creates are sculpted to encourage thoughtless and almost habitual eating, through the careful use of salt, sugar and fats to push our body’s biological buttons to encourage us to eat more, more often, without really realizing that’s what we’re doing.

All of the major food companies do this; in fact their financial models depend on mass quantities of food as minimum cost, so instead of using quality ingredients they mask this through carefully crafted additions of salt and sugar and fat to stimulate your body into finding the food interesting and edible.

What I found fascinating in this book is that the companies pretty clearly know this. Phillip Morris, which has diversified out of tobacco into also being one of the largest food companies in the world, is painfully aware of the legal time bomb it’s facing, and the companies Moss talked to were much more open about their operations than I would have expected.

There’s a sub-text in their openness: no one company can solve this problem on its own without putting itself out of business, adn it’s going to be up to the government to install standards to force all of them to move to healthier food options in tandem, because they can’t do it independently.

As one example of the problem there’s been a long-running debate about salt in processed food, and calls to remove it. The reality is that any time a company does, their food sells less well, their revenues suffer, the investors punish the stock, and the company has to backtrack back to the same high salt, high fat, high sugar foods their competition sell. With their investors caring about profit more than health, it’s practically impossible for a large, public food company to fix this problem on its own.

Some countries have been pushing this further, faster than others; Finland, for instance. But it’s clear from reading between the lines that the companies want to deal with this but can’t without help, and their cooperation (as far as it went) with Moss seemed crafted to help him understand and tell that message to the government and the public.

I won’t try to go into detail about what Moss has written about; if you’re at all interested in food, nutrition and health (and you should be), grab a copy of the book and read it yourself. It’s a fascinating and scary look at just what is inside those bags and boxes at the supermarket today, and how we got to this point.

If you want to dig into this more before buying the book, Moss has done a number of interviews to talk about the information in the book. A good one is this Q&A at Time Magazine. Even better is the interview he did with Chris Kimball on the America’s Test Kitchen podcast. (as an aside, if you are in any way a food geek, Kimball’s PBS shows and podcast are the best resource for getting information on how things work since Alton Brown’s Good Eats show went off the air. And as an aside to this aside, if you haven’t discovered Alton Brown’s podcast, it is also worth your time, although it’s publication frequency varies a lot depending on how busy Brown is).

You aren’t going to hear me tell you to become a vegan who only eats locally grown food raised by barefooted monks who don’t shower (lest the soap fumes land on the food and poison it); god knows my diet isn’t like that and never will be. My view isn’t that processed foods should be avoided at all costs, but you need to use them in moderation and with some thought about what you’re doing. Over the last few years out diet has gotten a lot healthier but it’s not an obsession, but we’ve shifted more towards eating at home instead of going out, and creating meals rather than unpacking them. (that said, I’m still known to get the occasional burger, but I try for quality when I do, and I’ve hit that point where french fries are effectively inedible hunks of greasy, salt-laden starch, and I almost always pass on them in favor of using my calorie budget on better stuff) . If you’ve been thinking of heading down this path but are unsure of the data behind why it’s a good idea, Moss’s book is a great explanation of just why those foods might be tasty, but aren’t the foods that you should be putting in your body on a regular basis. Carefully researched, fascinating to read, and highly recommended.

Posted in Review Wednesday

Portfolio: Refuges of the Central Valley

At the start of the year I set myself a task of publishing a portfolio of my work once a quarter. Going to work for Cisco kicked my schedule in the knee, so I’ve been behind in some of the projects I wanted to accomplish.

My first portfolio was my Yellowstone Portfolio, which was all new work. I’m now releasing my second portfolio, Refuges of the Central Valley, featuring work that I’ve done over the years at the various wildlife refuges here in California. This is work that’s part of my ongoing personal project on the refuges and the birds and wildlife that depend on them during the winter.

This portfolio is intended to give someone who’s never visited a refuge a sense of the kind of environment they will find there, and how that environment and the birds and wildlife that winter there that can be seen during a visit, and how the location changes from arrival before the first light of dawn through the last vestige of light after the sun sets on you.

I do hope you enjoy it. If you have any comments or feedback I’d love to hear from you.

Download the Portfolio

Posted in Photography Portfolios

Three Dot Lounge for August 31, 2014

Three dot lounge is a mostly-weekly collection of things that deserve more than a retweet. Stay tuned for fascinating opinions and pithy commentary. Also keep an eye on my Twitter feed for more interesting stuff.

Sierra Nevada Fall Color Season – Coming Sooner Than You Think!

Sierra Nevada Fall Color Season – Coming Sooner Than You Think!

And in October, Laurie and I are headed for Lee Vining with our cameras… Can’t wait.

The Personal Blog

The Personal Blog

Also see Elizabeth Spiers. There’s a growing amount of noise about controlling your own destiny and content online, and a move back towards the personal blog. Enough that it’s been given a term (IndieWeb) and there are camps supporting it.

I think this is awesome. I’ve always tried to keep direct control of my content which is why I’ve never given up this blog — it has postings going back to 2001, and it would go back further but I tend to edit the irrelevancy, the crap, the wrong and the 404ed links out of it every so often. I certainly use other sites, but I try to use them to support my content here, not replace it. It’s also why I rarely write for other services, I’m less interested in the money I could make than I am owning my words and using them as I wish (I am open to offers, of course, but not bad ones).

So I think this return to the core of IndieWeb and owning your site is a good one; you don’t have to own/run the server, but a self-hosted wordpress blog can be moved to any hosting services, where a blogger blog can’t without a lot of pain.

So what happens if all your content is on sites you don’t control and that site shuts down, or you do something to piss them off and they ban you? it all goes poof. Not fun. Think it can never happen? I remember the time someone spent the evening arguing that it was stupid wasting time running my own site when I could just move my stuff over to Geocities and let them worry about it.

(That said, I’m all for outsourcing as much of the gut admin stuff as possible. The time saved is more than worth the cost — this weekend I started the process of adding HTTPs to my site, and it took me 15 minutes and pushing three buttons. Doing it myself would have been a couple of evenings, at least… My hosting services is a VPS, so I handle the application layer (i.e. wordpress) and they deal with the OS, servers, and etc. Well worth what I pay them for…)



About freaking time we get another Luma Loop. I’m gonna go get my order in.

NBA Cuts Down Credentialed Photographers by 50% in Order to Make Sidelines Safer

NBA Cuts Down Credentialed Photographers by 50% in Order to Make Sidelines Safer

It’s probably safe to assume that Getty won’t lose any passes when this reduction hits, so whether they intended it or not, the practical effect of this is drastically reducing the competition for sale of images of the NBA, to the benefit of groups lie Getty.

And while I’m sure safety is a factor, I’m cynical enough to think these other factors were in the discussion somewhere. That this will benefit a partner over independent or small-agency photographers cant’ be a coincidence.

Worked things out with The Wirecutter

Worked things out with The Wirecutter

Believe it or not, disagreements happen online, just like in the real world. What’s suprising is that Marco and the Wirecutter sat down and hashed it out, and more power to them. What’s a normal happening in the real world seems to be notable online, and that’s too bad. Happy to see them work it out after everyone calms down a bit.

That said, the way Brian Lam handled his end didn’t make me think fondly of using (or referencing) the wirecutter, and it was someone else at the wirecutter that Marco noted he talked to, not Brian. That disappoints me, so you probably won’t see me referencing or linking to wirecutter for a while. On the other hand, I’d been thinking about changing headphones, so when Marco’s reviews came out, knowing how he does things I put in an order and my AKGs arrived today, and after an afternoon of wearing them, I can say they’re a definite upgrade over my old Seinheiser on-ear set. Thanks, Marco.


Posted in Three Dot Lounge

Portfolio: Impressions of Yellowstone (V2 – and lessons learned)

About a month ago I published my first portfolio, Impressions of Yellowstone, asking for feedback. Putting something out there for the first time like this is frankly a bit scary, but if you don’t do it, you’ll never improve and get it right. I want to especially thank QT Luong and David Barto for their comments.

The portfolio clearly needed tweaking, and so now I’ve done that, and here is Version 2 of Impressions of Yellowstone, plus I’ve done it as an online slideshow as well. It is substantially the same, but a number of images got reprocessed and/or re-cropped, a few images got swapped out and replaced and I removed the image commentary.

The commentary was, in retrospect, a clear sign that I didn’t trust the images to stand on their own and I was trying to “help” them. That was a sign of this being my first time out and being way out of my comfort zone, which was the whole point of the exercise, of course.

Do the images really hold up to a portfolio? Most of them, yes. I removed a few where I’d originally chosen them because I was still emotionally attached to the moment of taking them more and not for the true quality of the image. Sometimes I need some time to be able to see images more objectively — which I knew, but I was still surprised how some of the moments of taking the images affected my judgement. Something to watch more closely, and perhaps wait longer before making selections for something like this.

I also think a good general lesson is that your first impressions of an image might not be always correct, and that it really makes sense to go back into your work and re-evaluate them. I know when I went back in to do cleanup and validate the star ratings I ended up making a number of changes, mostly downgrading images that I’d ranked too high, but also promoting a few images that I hadn’t seen to be as good on the first edit.

Overall, I think the portfolio is good, the images solid, although not close to the kind of stunning stuff you’ll see by photographers like Ian Plant. that’s okay because I know I have to keep pushing the craft.

There are some cases where I’m disappointed in the quality of my shooting, especially with the Pronghorn Antelopes where most of the images seemed a bit off and soft, and I’m not sure why, but they just weren’t as good as a group as some of the other species. I think I learned a lot about how to build this kind of display and what kind of images work in it (and what doesn’t), which will help me understand how to build better portfolios down the road, and take better pictures overall.

Next big opportunity to challenge myself is October when we had out to the Eastern Sierra for fall with Michael Frye. I was in a discussion this week where my refuge project came up, and I realized that I needed to start thinking about where (or whether, given the drought) I wanted to go for that this winter. It’s still unclear how badly hit the refuges will be by the drought, although it’s going to be bad. And I’m behind my goal for a portfolio a quarter this year, so I think trying to build one out with the refuge material is next…




Posted in Photography Portfolios

Three Dot Lounge for August 17, 2014

Three dot lounge is a mostly-weekly collection of things that deserve more than a retweet. Stay tuned for fascinating opinions and pithy commentary. Also keep an eye on my Twitter feed for more interesting stuff.

What Happens When a Supermodel Violates Your Copyright

What Happens When a Supermodel Violates Your Copyright

This is one of a couple of recent cases where a photographer takes an image, and that image goes viral and the they lose effective control of it (the other is the Monkey Selfie image).

The reality is that an image like this may well spin out of your control. In the article on the supermodel image, the photographer even notes they considered giving up photography for a while.

My reaction to that is — it’s a photo. Sometimes it’s worth writing it off and moving on, folks, especially when the fight is a losing one and the stress is affecting your health or impacting your ability to be a photographer. Is an image really worth that?

There’s your legal right under copyright. There’s the practical reality of a viral image and putting that genie back in the bottle (you can’t). And there’s keeping a sense of perspective that should tell you that at some point, you should focus on taking more pictures, and not on the lost fight of trying to regain control of an image where you won’t win and the payback is not going to be worth what it costs you.

I’m not suggesting you don’t try to protect and control your images. I’m saying that at some point, you need to realize it’s time to move on — especially when it’s impacting your interest in actually being a photographer. No image is worth that.

I’ll Never Fly Amazon Again

I’ll Never Fly Amazon Again

Given the fight between Hatchette and Amazon, with the authors once again cannon fodder in the middle, and Amazon trying similar tactics against Disney, I have similar thoughts to Marco. I’ve been revamping some of my affiliate stuff (to good results so far) — small potatoes given that a good month barely pays my hosting bill — but I think ultimately this is two companies strongarming each other and they’ll work it out, and I just hope the little people stuck in the middle don’t get hurt too badly as the giants wrestle. I definitely know that my choosing to not buy or sell through Amazon wouldn’t impact the decision one teeny bit — and bluntly, there’s no affiliate program that would be remotely as useful to me as Amazon. I’ve experimented with them, and only Amazon has the general access to the population and diversity of product to make it worth the hassle.

So for now, I’m moving forward as is, but not without some ambiguous feelings about it.


Posted in Three Dot Lounge