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Book Review: “Salt Sugar Fat” by Michael Moss

The only way out of the fast-food dilemma is to do it yourself. Only a relative few with the necessary financial resources manage to do this.

Figure book "Salt Sugar Fat", to the right of it text. For the book review or abstract.© CC-by 2.0, Catalina Sparleanu, PhD, Foundation Diet and Health Switzerland


The only way out of the fast-food dilemma is to do it yourself. And the only people who manage this are those who live a natural lifestyle and an intelligent minority who have the necessary financial means.

Junk food is very cheap, available almost everywhere, requires very little or no preparation, and is an especially quick and easy option for meals.

Most convenience products are also handy, quite tasty, cheap, and cool—sometimes even entertaining. And there are two additional reasons why many people can't give up convenience foods: they get hungry again very quickly and fast food makes them very happy.

Moss, other journalists, and a number of scientists have predicted that the future will bring catastrophic health care costs. And as long as these don't have a noticeable impact, no effective measures will be taken. Political involvement is to blame here.

See the section The Secret Meeting in 1999, which is a MUST-READ if you want to understand this dilemma. For readers who are interested in learning more about the topic, I have included links to Wikipedia. There, you will find a lot of interesting and helpful information. Often, the pages are only available in English as pages in languages other than English are often created by individuals whose opinions are influenced by specific industries.

1. Summary

Many people assume that the topic of food safety is well regulated by the government. This book provides compelling examples that show how much control the food industry really has. As a result, there are many places where laws to protect consumers are lacking. The food industry has an increasing say here.

About the author and personal comments

Michael Moss received a Pulitzer Prize in 2010 in the category Explanatory Reporting. Before this, he had been a finalist on two occasions. While writing the book, he worked as a journalist for The New York Times. He also received the Gerald Loeb Award for Food Safety (under the category Work) and a commendation from the Overseas Press Club (OPC). Here are links to the OPC and the OPC of America websites. Moss also taught as an adjunct professor at Columbia School of Journalism.

Michael Moss also wrote:

  • the book Palace Coup,
  • the article The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food, which appeared in the magazine section of The New York Times,
  • and a blog in The Huffington Post under the title Sugar Salt Fat.
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Several years before Salt Sugar Fat appeared, the German book Lügen Lobbies Lebensmittel (Lies lobbies food) was published. This book focuses primarily on the situation in Europe. Please click on the link to go to the book review (currently only in German).

The images that I have added to this book review serve to break up the text and provide space for additional comments. The book Salt Sugar Fat itself doesn't contain any images. The images here are either from Wikipedia, from the public domain, or I took them myself. Entries on Wikipedia often lack objectivity. Representatives of specific industries also write many articles, and an account from the opposing point of view is often not possible.

You can enlarge each of the images by clicking on them—and also view all of the images as a slideshow.

After the prologue title “The Company Jewels,” there are three sections to the book: Sugar (6 chapters), Fat (5 chapters), and Salt (3 chapters).

The order of the topics is not the same as the title. There is an epilogue on page 331 titled “We're Hooked on Inexpensive Food.” And as is common in US books, numerous acknowledgments (starting on p. 349), information about the sources (starting on p. 353), and notes (starting on p. 357) are included. And then there is a selected bibliography starting on page 417 and a topical index from pages 423–446.

The fact that the liberal idea of “Everybody is responsible for themselves” is not true for a majority of the population can be seen in society itself.

The book is a critical history of multinational food companies. This includes their makers, research, product development, production, and marketing. And in telling this story, Moss often points to the dangers for the human population.

Readers shouldn't expect a nonfiction book that works carefully with a purely factual common theme, but rather more of a novel. In the book, we see that time, places, and facts are all woven together—somewhat like with a stew.

Salt Sugar Fat is the best book that I have yet to read about the problems of popular convenience foods (including pizza) and industrially produced foods.

For those who avoid these types of foods, this book will serve as a confirmation. Unfortunately, those who are affected usually don't read this type of book. But if so, they should expect a difficult struggle with their own emotional brain or rather limbic system and amygdalae (emotional reactions). Most people unfortunately develop a sense of resignation—before they would try to take their fate into their own hands.

Moss offers an impressive explanation of how the brain responds to stimuli. Industrial foods are created to make the biggest profits possible and very skillfully make use of the phenomenon of addiction. He describes studies with salt that show how programming errors are already possible in the mother's womb and in the first months after birth. But it is also possible for us to get out of this cycle, as the study described below shows. However, this takes three months and requires a lot of willpower.

"Die Suchtmacher", Cover of Der Spiegel, issue 10/2013 (March 4, 2013)© CC-by-sa 2.0, Der Spiegel 10/2013

Der Spiegel (German magazine) covered this topic in issue 10/2013 with the cover story "Die Suchtmacher" (Addictive fast food) and on the Internet under the title "Die Menschen-Mäster" (Fattening up people) and subtitle "The food industry uses a lot of fat, salt, and sugar to make its products attractive and its customers addicted. Critics compare the health risks of greedy appetites with the risks of alcohol and tobacco."

See also (German only).

Addictive fast food

The article also discusses the traffic-light labeling system, which was successfully introduced in the UK. This system requires that there be a red, yellow, or green light next to the list of ingredients.

The German politician Ilse Aigner positioned herself against this type of solution. Instead, she wanted the EU to work on the problem. However, associations and multinational companies bombarded the politicians with calls, emails, and position papers and won.

The European Interessenverband Lebensmittelindustrie (food industry association) is believed to have spent a billion euros on this campaign.

Those who have analyzed the numbers in the past several years and calculated for the future know what society is going to be faced with. The facts are now on the table. It isn't eating disorders that are the problem here, but rather the masses of people who have poor eating habits. Most people lack information, education, and financial resources.

In February 2013, principal investigator Robert Moodie published the following statement in the scientific journal The Lancet. Moodie teaches at the University of Melbourne in Australia.

Having hope that multinational companies will freely choose to produce healthier products is like entrusting burglars to install door locks.

Corrective laws and measures are lacking. Given the corruption in the food industry and politics, such laws are not yet possible. Personal suffering and health care costs will have to first increase much further.

Personal comments

I read this book on April 19, 2013, when our plane from Richmond to Dallas had to return to the airport because of a burning smell and we were stuck in the airport for a day. What a coincidence! My wife and I had stayed in 40 different places in the US and talked with a lot of people.

After this, I decided that I wanted to dedicate myself to this educational work of promoting a life full of activity and health. And I wanted to do this even though numerous publications on the topic existed because these were often too one-sided, incomplete, or even misleading.

With Salt Sugar Fat, I think it would have been better if Moss had dealt with all of the stories about and around the companies and the people separately and had followed a chronological order or selected a certain subject area to focus on. Options would have been, for example, the topics of politics and influence, the companies themselves, the effects of certain ingredients as determined by research, products, consumers, their needs and desires, or aspects to consider for the future.

The author was not even able to really separate the chapters Salt, Sugar, and Fat. I think that too much is woven together. And this makes it difficult to summarize the content of the book.

But despite the high level of complexity, the book is very interesting and gives the reader deep insight into the seducers and the seduced. We see that even the seducers are also seduced, thanks to their human character. They are responsible, either unscrupulously, unconsciously, or consciously, for causing an entire society to have major health problems.

This is why many authors don't call industrially produced products food, but instead call them food products since they shorten life instead of helping to fulfill the requirements for a healthy life.

2. Book review

Michael Moss begins his book with a description of the extraordinary secret meeting on April 8, 1999, where the most important top managers (CEOs) of the food industry giants met. One of these 11 men supervised a total of 700'000 employees and annual sales of $280 billion.

After the prologue, Moss uses the three book sections to explain the role of sugar, fat, and salt and why, for example, the food industry has to use these and other additives in order to achieve the necessary shelf life—and to capture market share.

In certain sections, Moss describes the industry's actions in the areas of research, development, production, marketing, and sales in detail. For this book, he spoke with numerous persons who are or were in positions of responsibility and with government and public officials. With in-depth insider knowledge, Moss was able to report on the dilemma that concerns us all.

The “nature of humans” and other books on the subject

My opinion is that we recognize how such a catastrophe can happen, albeit unwanted, but foreseeable; this is just our human nature. Reliable corrective measures are lacking in certain areas. But society will only put these in place if something leads to a major disaster.

There isn't a conspiracy in progress. The “nature of humans” is simply having an effect. This nature is something that idealistic politicians don't recognize. True liberalism is really the opposite of communism, but if the concentration of power is too large, the results are very similar.

I would recommend this interesting book to every person. You will find several stories about incidents, links, and consequences. Unfortunately, the book lacks a certain structure that could better guide the reader.

  • It should be noted that the industry critic Kelly D. Brownell mentioned in this book review published the book Food Fight: The Inside Story of the Food Industry, America’s Obesity Crisis, & What We Can Do About It (McGraw-Hill, 352 pages) in August 2003 (paperback edition: 2004). The coauthor is Katherine Battle Horgen. The book received much less recognition than "Salt Sugar Fat".
  • And also the book Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines Our Health and How to Fight Back by Michele Simon didn't achieve near the success (2006, Nation Books, 416 pages).
  • And not long before "Salt Sugar Fat" by Moss, other books on the subject appeared, but they didn't enjoy the same large response and recognition. An example is Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition, and Health, revised and expanded edition by Dr. Marion Nestle (University of California Press, October 2007, 510 pages).

The large number of similar books does point to the fact that at least for interested groups this is a hot topic.

The Secret Meeting in 1999

James Behnke, who was 55 at the time and a special advisor to Pillsbury's chief executive, organized this meeting. He suspected that the US government would intervene and do something about the ever increasing problem of obesity in the population. He also feared that the government would blame the food industry for the growing health care crisis.

At this meeting, there were no agenda items, notes, or journalists. The CEO of each of the following eight companies took part: Nabisco, Kraft, General Mills, Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola, Mars, Pillsbury, and Nestlé. As competitors, these food industry giants fought hard and still fight hard today on the market. That same year, General Mills acquired the major cereal producer Kellogg.

The CEOs from the two most important suppliers were also present. These are Cargill (United States), a family company with $134 billion in annual sales that is responsible for the purchase, processing, and sales of grains and grain products, and Tate & Lyle (UK).

John Cady from the National Food Processors Association (NFPA) arrived only in time to take part in the dinner together. Note: The NFPA is now called the Food Products Association (FPA).

Tate & Lyle's sucralose business has belonged to the American Sugar Refining Company since 2010.


Sucralose is the brand name for trichlorogalactosucrose and is about 600 times sweeter than sugar or to be precise granulated sugar (sucrose), but it doesn't have any calories.

It has been authorized in Canada since 1991, the US since 1999, and the EU since 2004.

This sugar substitute is already present in many foods as food additive E955.

The acceptable daily intake (ADI) is 15 mg per kg of body weight. Certain additives do not have to be labeled with E numbers. And some of these have not undergone adequate research in regards to adverse effects.

Assugrin sugar substitute: This is a blend of cyclamate and saccharin.© CC-by-sa 2.0, Rama, Wikipedia

See, for example, dispersants, thickening agents (usually as E numbers), and emulsifiers—see also additional additives.

See also sweeteners made from stevia.

James Behnke, PhD in chemistry, had a successful career at Pillsbury for several years and was appointed special advisor to the CEO in 1999. He proved to have great ability to see the increasing health problems. He recognized that the industry was causing the dilemma. The industry assumed that several of their products would be eaten occasionally, but the competition caused these products to become so cheap that they took front and center stage. In addition, the industry determined a bliss point that really makes consumers want to have more.

Procter & Gamble, Mars Incorporated, Kraft and Pillsbury Company

Procter & Gamble (P&G, US), founded in 1837, is a multinational company for consumer products. P&G is a leader in brand management, but is a company that hardly comes into the public eye although it practically invented radio advertising as well as television advertising early on as marketing instruments.

P&G also sponsored and produced modern communication strategies such as radio and television shows, including Guiding Light, 1937 to 2009, which was the longest-running soap opera (Guinness Book). The German television station RTL produced parts of the story from 1986 to 1999.
Coca-Cola is the world's largest soft drink company and one of the most well-known brands in the world. Asa Griggs Candler acquired the rights from inventor John Stith Pemberton (1831–1888) and founded the Coca-Cola Company in 1892.

We know Mars Incorporated from the popular Mars chocolate bar. Frank C. Mars, together with his wife, began to produce sweets in 1911 and founded the company Mar-O-Bar in 1920.

Frank then changed the name to Mars Incorporated (US) in 1922 and introduced the Milky Way candy bar in 1923. His son, Forrest E. Mars, introduced the Mars bar in England in 1932. In 2010, the company had annual sales of $28 billion and 65 thousand employees. Forbes Magazine listed Mars in 2010 as the fifth largest private company in the US. It was listed on the stock exchange in Switzerland, but not in the US.

Today, Nabisco (US) belongs to Kraft, which is now divided into Kraft Foods Group (US) and Mondelēz International (US). Today, Mondelēz International is the third largest food company in the world after Nestlé (Switzerland) and PepsiCo (US). Nestlé S.A. is the largest food company in the world. In 2011, its annual sales were approximately $90 billion, and the company had 330 thousand employees. Henri Nestlé (1814–1890) founded the company in 1866 and introduced a milk powder for infants in 1867. In 1875, he sold his successful company to his business associates (as per Wikipedia, May 2015)—Nestle himself only talks about selling to Pierre-Samuel Roussy, his flour supplier.

At that time, the Pillsbury Company was one of the multinational beverage producers for beer and whiskey (Diageo plc is the largest today). The majority of the British Distiller's Company's (DCBL) assets, (Conteran license holder) are now a part of Diageo plc.

Since 2001, Pillsbury has belonged to General Mills, which was founded in 1866 and had annual sales of $16.7 billion in 2012. General Mills is best known for its breakfast cereals.

Moss writes that the company introduced a new form of marketing in 1932 with its daily soap opera Betty and Bob on the radio station NBC.

According to Wikipedia, the first market players were the Dial Corporation (subsidiary of the Henkel Group), Proctor & Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive, and Lever Brothers.

Irma Phillips created this genre with Painted Dreams, the first daily soap opera that premiered in October 1930.

Illustration of "Dicker Schorsch" from 1904 when obesity was still considered a prosperity mark.© CC-by-sa 2.0, unknown (PD), Wikipedia + Foundation Diet Health Switzerland

Michael Mudd, who at the time was the vice-president of Kraft, explained that huge numbers of young people in the United States were overweight. And that not doing anything about this problem would be a big mistake because it would come back to hurt the companies, he believed.

Overweight and obesity

He stated that more than half of the adults in the US were overweight. And that of these, 40 million were obese (obesity: a BMI of >30).

The number of children who were overweight had more than doubled between 1980 and 1999. And 12 million children were obese.

Mudd explained that the social costs were huge at between $40 to 100 billion a year. He also showed the drastic increase of diseases such as diabetes mellitus, coronary heart disease, arteriosclerosis, heart attacks, arterial hypertension (commonly known as high blood pressure), bile and liver problems, osteoarthritis, breast cancer, colorectal cancer (colon cancer), and endometrial cancer.

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Today, obesity is a global problem. Even in China, people have adopted our foods and eating habits. In comparison to the West, China still has lower numbers when it comes to true obesity, which is a BMI >30.

The Wikipedia entry on obesity (German version) includes a bar graph from 2005 on obesity in 30 countries (doesn't include China).

It shows that 3.2 % of the population is obese in Japan and Korea, followed by 7.7 % in Switzerland and then 9.1 % in Austria (position 6) and 12.9 % in Germany (17).

The countries at the top with more than 20 % are New Zealand, Australia, Greece, Slovakia, the UK, Mexico (24.2 %), and the United States with 30.6 %. Mexico may soon pass up the US if they haven't done so already.

Mudd included the fact that Walter C. Willett, the chair of Harvard's Department of Nutrition, had been on a PBS Frontline report called “Fat” and had already been pointing to industrial food production as the cause of this obesity epidemic. Among other things, he explained that most grains are converted to starches, sugar is used in a concentrated form, and many foods contain trans fatty acids.

Losing key allies

Mudd emphasized that the food manufacturers were in danger of losing key allies such as the American Heart Association (AHA) and the American Cancer Society (ACS).

He also warned that although the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) received money from the companies represented, the problem may soon cause the USDA chief to bite the hand that feeds him. The ubiquitous, cheap, very tasty, super-sized, and energy-dense food and beverages were turning the food pyramid recommended by the state upside down.

Mudd warned that Kelly D. Brownell, a well-known critic of the food industry, was pointing out connections to the tobacco industry.

This was problematic because lawyers had imposed large penalties and restrictions upon the cigarette industry. Now, these same lawyers could turn to the problem of obesity.

Next, Mudd presented ways to get around this problem. The industry itself should investigate the links between diet and obesity and put industry-wide limits on salt, sugar, and fat. Mudd also wanted to change the way that products were marketed to children. He then ended by saying that the industry should be part of the solution instead of the problem.

Then all eyes turned to the CEO of General Mills, Stephan W. Sanger (1946-present, previously at Procter & Gamble) as his company was the one that had the most to lose. His particular exploits in supermarkets had impressed the others in the industry. Under his leadership, General Mills had conquered the supermarkets with convenience foods.

"Don't talk to me about nutrition, talk to me about taste!"

Sanger appeared to be very upset and reminded the others that both consumers and their ivory tower advocates were fickle, with what they love and what they eat. Consumers would discuss the topic of sugar, and then of fat and salt, but they usually bought the things they liked the best. Don't talk to me about nutrition, he said, speaking like a typical consumer.

Talk to me about taste, and if this stuff tastes better, don't run around trying to sell stuff that doesn't taste good (p. xx of prologue).

Besides, he reminded them that the industry had always managed to handle things, for example, negative news about trans fats.

He would move forward and would not pull his employees back. And his peers should do the same. Not everyone in the room shared this position, but it was very comforting. And Sanger presented his views in such a forceful and persuasive manner that they served as the closing words of the meeting.

And later, Sanger still felt his approach was right. He argued that his company also offered healthier versions of their mainline products. But as time went on, these companies manufactured products that contained even more salt, sugar, and fat.

Further pressure from the public and government circles brought about small improvements, which, above all, were urgently needed in foods for children.

The S'more products made by Hershey took the levels of fat, sugar, and salt to new heights. Daryl Brewster, CEO of Nabisco, told Michael Moss that Hershey's move had put them in a position where they were practically forced to add more fat in order to get to the bliss point. This was the only way that Nabisco could regain lost market share.

Food fight

For example, the new slogan in 2011 for the Oreo in India, where the company was securing a new foothold, was “Twist, Lick, Dunk.” Kraft used the slogan “Slam dunk,” which describes both a basket shot and dunking and eating the cookie.

It took numerous interviews and five months of research before Moss was able to put together the story of this secret meeting. He decided to put it at the beginning of his book as it shows typical actions of this largely unbridled industry. The companies demand success at almost any price. People who have concerns about the consequences of this type of diet don't have a place there. A company can't bring itself down.

Cover of book "Eat, Drink, and Weigh Less", Mollie Katzen and Walter Willett, M.D. Source: Amazon© CC-by-sa 2.0, Hachette Books, Amazon
Walter C. Willett has written several books including "Eat, Drink, and Weigh Less: A Flexible And Delicious Way To Shrink Your Waist Without Going Hungry", which he co-authored with Mollie Katzen. The book is available as a reprint edition from 2007 (307 pages).

Katzen published her first cookbook, "The Moosewood Cookbook", in 1977. She promotes a vegetarian diet.

Willet also wrote "Eat, Drink, And Be Healthy: The Harvard Medical School Guide to Healthy Eating" (2003). There is a large number of other books available that describe this problem.

Kelly D. Brownell published The LEARN Program for Weight Control: Lifestyle, Exercise, Attitudes, Relationships, Nutrition in 1994 (226 pages). The tenth edition was printed in 2004 as a paperback (226 pages), but it is much too expensive.

Together with Katherine Battle Horgen, Brownell's book Food Fight: The Inside Story of The Food Industry, America’s Obesity Crisis, and What We Can Do About It was published by McGraw-Hill in 2004 as a paperback (356 pages).

Brownell also published additional books, some of which were with co-authors. However, I wouldn't recommend these as they aren't scientific enough.


Based on extensive insider knowledge, Michael Moss explains how the industry researches the proportion of sugar, salt, and fat that needs to be added to a product so that special impulses are triggered in our brain.

2.1. Exploiting the Biology of the Child (p. 3)

The bliss point is different for each person, depending on their age and other factors. Small children require a recipe with significantly more sugar in order to reach their bliss point.

The food industry computes this with cleverly devised studies—primarily conducted at Monell Chemical Senses Center, a nonprofit independent scientific institute.

Gustatory perception

Researchers at Princeton University discovered that rats get chattering teeth when they go back to a normal diet after having been on a sugary diet for a certain period of time (p. 6).

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Note: Cats, on the other hand, can't taste sugar as they lack the receptor for sweetness. However, some cats love chocolate as it contains other flavors.

In 2001, researchers at Monell identified the protein molecule TIR3 in the taste buds that detects sweetness. This experience is called gustatory perception.

It wasn't until later that researchers determined that these types of sugar sensors are also present in the digestive tract.

In 2009, the group working under Robert Margolskee discovered that the sweet taste receptors in the brain respond to cannabis (marijuana) because sugar is a chemical sister of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol).

Note: The Wikipedia entry on Monell lists 12 important achievements that have benefited the food industry.

Moss writes that half of Monell's annual budget of $17.5 million comes from taxpayers. The other half comes from donations, but also from specific studies conducted for PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Kraft, Nestlé, Philip Morris, and other food manufacturers (p. 7).

Monell financed research that would put cigarettes in a more favorable light. Moss also describes tests conducted with children to “determine their bliss point.” These tests have allowed the industry to develop foods that children really crave.

The desire children have for things that are especially sweet

Moss starts his story about sugar with the desire children have for things that are especially sweet. The reason for this is that breast milk is very sweet. Children taste this sweetness from the very first day of their life, whereas they don't have salt until they are between four and six months. And African Americans also have a greater preference for sweeter foods than the average consumer.

Moss explains in great detail how Monell conducts studies with children and adults on a large scale and what findings the food industry gains from these.

Moss acquired the information he needed on this topic by visiting with individual employees at Monell.

Moss explains how refined starches act immediately with the help of amylase and trigger sugar cravings.

Highly processed starches work more quickly and intensely. Immediate pleasure is signaled, and amylase also acts as an analgesic, blocking the sensation of pain (p. 15).

Amylase was the first enzyme to be discovered. The chemist Anselme Payen identified it in 1833 and named it diastase.


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