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.

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.