Oreos and Girl Scout cookies have as much of a place in my daily diet as my homemade hyperlocal leafy green smoothie dusted with turmeric. My husband thinks sweets are a waste of calories, opting instead for the salty crunchy indulgences, namely, Doritos and movie popcorn. Whether we identify ourselves as conscientious eaters is a moot point. Sugar and salt preside over much of our modern American diet, and consumption has been increasing as a result of a deliberate campaign by processed food manufacturers to make their products addictive. Adding sugars and salt to a fleet of food-like substances— from snack foods to seemingly innocuous products like yogurts, cereals, pasta sauce, and bread—is their most powerful mechanism for fueling addiction.
“Sugar not only sweetens, it also replaces more costly ingredients— like tomatoes in ketchup—to add bulk and texture,” writes Michael Moss in Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us.
“And salt, barely more expensive than water, has miraculous powers to boost the appeal of processed food.”
Salt and sugar are by-products of a monoculture that has stripped away biodiversity. Added sugar lurks in some 75% of supermarket products, while about half of grocery store products exceed the government’s sodium recommendations. Brightly colored packaging, brands, and TV characters belie items composed primarily of corn, wheat, rice, palm oil, and soybeans that are loaded with concentrated levels of salt and sugar.
I recently followed up with Moss, who is continuing research for upcoming book, Hooked: Food and Free Will. I wanted to know more about Frankensalts and sugars. What were some of the latest efforts being developed in labs to further manipulate sugar and salt to strengthen their power? What did that mean for us? The conversation veered into broader implications about our convenience-driven society, and how it feeds opportunistic junk food manufacturers—and vice versa. What kind of yogurt do you use in your green smoothie? How much sugar does it have?
Moss talked about how one global food giant invited him back to its world headquarters to see how they were attempting to remedy the sodium and sugar loads in its foods. “I thought I had tortured them enough (in Salt Sugar Fat). But they said they wanted to turn a corner and wanted me to see the extraordinary things they were doing, like replacing caloric sugar with Stevia to keep the product sweet and desirable,” he said. “They were exploring ways to concentrate the salt to the outside of an item, instead of its entirety, so that it still hits the taste buds faster and sends that pleasure reward to the brain. They seemed genuine in their efforts.” But the attempts are pointless, he says. These products are not food.
“There’s widespread agreement among nutritionists that the way to eat healthier is not about focusing on salt, sugar, and fat as much as it is about doubling down on vegetables and whole fruits. If we think too much about food as nutrition, the processed food companies will always win because they can change the numbers on the nutrition facts boxes in any way they want,” Moss says. “We, as consumers, need to be in control. We can’t let them control us.”
At the time of the founding of the U.S. Constitution, Americans consumed about six pounds of sugar per year. Industrial foods helped feed an exponential surge since then. The average American ingests about 22 teaspoons of sugar per day—or at least 70 pounds per year—split between sugar cane, sugar beets, and the group of corn sweeteners that includes high-fructose corn syrup.
Sugar, doctors and researchers say, is more addictive than cocaine (thus the daily urge). When we eat sugar, the brain releases dopamine, which triggers associations of pleasure and reward, says Daniel Wesson, an associate professor at University of Florida’s Center for Smell and Taste. “What’s unique about sugar that has not been observed with cocaine, is that once it hits the gut, the brain issues a secondary release of dopamine.”
Our average daily intake of sodium, at 3,440 milligrams, is double the recommended amount, and little of it comes from the saltshakers on our kitchen tables. Most of it comes from the $1 trillion processed food industry, whose main tenets are taste, convenience, and cost, Moss writes in Salt Sugar Fat. And we oblige. Convenience and advertising drive our increasing reliance on junk foods, according to a 2016 USDA Economic Research Service report. Cost also influences our dependence. Meanwhile, Americans spend less on food than housing or health care. Taste was not mentioned as a main influence on our convenience food reliance.
“When 20th-century food scientists developed sodas, chips, and TV dinners, they imagined [these] would be occasional fare,” writes Moss in referencing a conversation with a former chief technical officer at Pillsbury. “It was society that had changed, changed so dramatically that these snacks and convenience foods had become a daily—even hourly—habit, a staple of the American diet.”
Now, the U.S. has the world’s highest proportion of obese individuals. In the U.S., life expectancy has seen a consecutive two-year decline for the first time in more than two decades. The top two age-adjusted causes of death are heart disease and cancer, which are linked to excess sugar and sodium intake. Sugar consumption among children, adolescents, and young adults is nearly double the recommended amount of total calories, according to the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion’s 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines. Same with salt. The current federal administration’s relaxation of school nutrition rules may further complicate youth’s excessive sugar and salt intake, as updated USDA school meal standards allow for more sodium, sugary flavored milk, and fewer whole grains.
Real Flavor, Real Food
In his book The Third Plate, Dan Barber writes that what we eat is part of an integrated whole, a web of relationships. Our depleted soil as a result of monoculture industrial farming starves us of nutrients. So we search for flavor in other ways, and oftentimes it leads us to things that are so nutrient-starved, we overeat them. “When we taste something truly delicious, something that is persistent, it most likely originated from well-mineralized, biologically rich soils,” Barber writes.
The processed foods industry is not going away anytime soon. Salt, sugar, and their derivatives are conduits for profit. Let’s think about our own return on investment. If we’re going to spend money taking in calories, we should be thinking about their impact beyond the short-lived pleasure. The next time you or I reach for the thing that is not a food, we should pause and think. What do we gain, and what do we lose, when we remove ourselves from the real flavor that comes from real food grown through responsible farming practices?