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Salt, sugar, fat — how the food giants hooked us (book review)

By Rod Tucker

Strategies and manoeuvres used to keep you on an unhealthy diet

‘Salt, sugar, fat — how the food giants hooked us’, by Michael Moss. Pp 429. Price £20. Croydon: Ebury Publishing; 2013. ISBN 9 780 7535 414556

The US has the highest levels of obesity in the world although other countries around the globe are quickly catching up. For example, in the UK, it is estimated that 60 per cent of adults and 30 per cent of children are overweight. The cause of this epidemic is normally attributed to eating too much and exercising too little. Although lack of exercise is an important factor, many authorities argue that it is overconsumption of junk food, as well as an over-reliance on convenience foods that is the main contributory factor because such foods contain large amounts of three key ingredients sugar, salt and fat, which are included to increase the allure of the products and keep us coming back for more.

This book describes how the proportion of each of the three key ingredients is varied with a high degree of precision and incorporated into foods to maximise the taste sensation. The food industry employs an army of scientists, including food technologists, engineers, chemists and psychologists to fine tune its products. The amount of sugar for instance in drinks (and foods) is varied to achieve what is termed the “bliss point”, the precise amount of sweetness that makes drinks most enjoyable. Furthermore, researchers have demonstrated with imaging studies that both sugar and fats directly affect the nucleus accumbens, also known as the reward centre in the brain, those same pathways activated by drugs of abuse. Stimulation of the reward centre generates intense feelings of pleasure and this has been used by the food industry to maximise the appeal of its products. The allure of salt is more difficult to understand on a biological level but it seems that we all seem to love (to varying degrees) salt in our food. In fact, the author describes how he was presented with foods such as breads, processed meats, etc, that were specially prepared without salt and the resultant offerings were unpalatable.

What is perhaps more interesting is how the food industry contrived to resist changes to the levels of sugar, fat and salt even in the face of growing opposition from both governments and consumer groups. As an example, although the industry succumbed to pressure and introduce labelling to display the amounts of fat, sugar, salt as well as the calorie content of foods such as crisps, the quantities of each component were listed per serving even though the typical serving or portion was based on data from the 1970s and bore little resemblance to the actual amounts consumed today.

The level of salt in processed food was reduced in response to concerns about hypertension but since many products already contained excessive amounts of salt, it was relatively easy to reduce salt levels without much impact on taste. However, over the years, salt levels have slowly crept back up in processed goods. Clever marketing strategies are also deployed, targeting particular groups (eg, children) or even to portray a product as being healthy. For instance, the description “contains real fruit” although true, is misleading because it contains only what is called “stripped juice”, basically pure sugar, without the fibre and nutrients associated with real fruit. 

In response to criticisms, the industry has always held the view that it is only providing foods that people want to eat and drink. In fact, its products would not sell if consumers did not like them. Furthermore, it is argued that the levels of sugar, fat and salt are sometimes necessary to maintain the products’ shelf-life and to increase palatability. In addition, people leading busy lives want convenience and so-called “healthy” snack foods so that they can eat on the go. Think of instant porridge, breakfast biscuits, etc.

Overall, I think the book, although a bit too long in places, would be of interest to those wishing to know more about how the food industry operates and the often underhand tactics they have employed to ensure that their produce is successfully marketed to generate considerable income. It will perhaps come as no surprise to pharmacists to see that the strategies and manoeuvres used are no different to what might be expected of any large and powerful organisation.

Rod Tucker is a community pharmacist from East Yorkshire

Citation: The Pharmaceutical Journal DOI: 10.1211/PJ.2013.11119774

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