Salt, Sugar, Fat by Michael Moss is an investigatory report into processed food industry practices that was published in 2013. The book is American-centric and doesn’t necessarily hold across all cultures and nations but in so much as America is a cultural harbinger for a lot of the world it is worthwhile using them as a case study. But first, a caveat, Moss is not a scientist, he approaches the work from a journalistic bent and I found some of his writing on some of the more scientific elements to be alarmist and a touch misleading at times. That being said, it is clear that Moss is passionate about the subject and that he has covered his bases with respect to the investigatory journalism he has done. This is not a scientific book, this is a journalistic expose.
My predominate takeaway about the book is that it has nothing to do with food.
Instead, the book is ultimately about marketing, about understanding consumer psychology and cravings and then about working out how to push those buttons in order to drive a financial return for the companies and their shareholders. There are parallels here across the rise of social media and it’s inherently anti-social elements. The drug and alcohol epidemics. The role of problem gambling and the design of video games. Processed food isn’t about food, it’s about triggering psychological impulses and cravings.
In fact, I would say that Moss has zeroed in on a more meta problem in this case, the rise of targetted marketing designed to exploit human psychology and provided a case study with respect to the processed food industry.
In this light the book is more interesting, it’s not so much an exposure about the practices of the food industry but instead an exploration as to how companies use science and psychological research to target consumers. We’re all just being manipulated for profit and the food companies are fully on board with this.
So. Is this evil?
I don’t know. On the one hand people should be able to do what they like as long as they’re not hurting people. This is classical liberalism. Individual choice is paramount and people should be exposed to the consequences of their decisions.
But we don’t live in a classical liberal system. Instead, through the various social safety nets that we have in place we live in a system with government mandated healthcare and pooling of risks. Unhealthy people cause higher costs that all of us must pay for in terms of increased healthcare spending. This is an interesting philosophical problem in that individual choices can cause costs to the society as a whole. That is, the sacredness of individual choice runs up against a limit when it starts to negative impact other people and this impact is largely coming through in higher healthcare costs in this situation.
So, is this another example of privatised gains and socialised losses? The companies profit from the excess profits from selling unhealthy, addictive products to “the masses” with society as a whole through their governments having to pick up the pieces. Is processed food just another example of tobacco?
In these scenarios there are two options, 1) just let people continue to keep doing what they want, society picks up the tab and the costs are small enough that we don’t mind. 2) Regulate the industry in some way to start reducing the harms and therefore the costs to society in this case from the individuals problems.
The challenge with 2) is that it’s inherently paternalistic and broad brushed. Government knows best after all. It ignores the nuance that there are situations where these foods and various additives can be fantastic. When I’m out hiking I want a processed, high calorie density, great tasting and long shelf life item. It gets the weight down, gives me something to look forward to and is hygienic to eat. But, when I’m at home I want fresh, great tasting produce which I can prepare myself and eat healthily. Where does my responsibility to distinguish between the two scenarios end? Because some other people have a problem with these foods should I be excluded from consuming them at my choice?
As such, I don’t take issue with the food items themselves. Instead, I take issue with the intense advertising and marketing efforts that underpin them. This is my main takeaway from Moss’s book. Be intensely careful and distrusting of large corporations attempts to market towards you. They’re seeking to manipulate you in order to increase their sales and profits. Use their products sure, but don’t buy into their marketing at all.
In terms of the book itself, it’s written in an okay fashion. A bit sensationalist at times especially around some elements of basic science. The author doesn’t add a lot to the conversation itself beyond reporting on various conversations that the author has had with former industry executives in often quite exaggerated terms.
I’d rate it as a 3/5. The book is interesting in so much as Moss has documented the excesses of the food industry. It’s not interesting in that it doesn’t delve into ways to solve the problem. I think the psychology of addition could have been explored in more depth.