ARMCHAIR BOOK CLUB: Healthy dose of words

Penticton books columnist Heather Allen warns book may give you second thoughts on that next drink of pop or bite of junk food.

So what if March is National Salt Awareness month? I make an effort to cook at home and avoid most processed foods. So I don’t need to worry about the amount of salt in my diet, right? Dead wrong if I’m to believe the latest book about food:  Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us.

Michael Moss, a Pulitzer-prize winning writer for the New York Times, starts his book with a message we’ve already heard: Food corporations load their foods with sugar, fat and salt so that we’ll crave, eat and over consume pop, chips, cookies, candies and other junk foods. But how and why do the food experts hook us? By interviewing hundreds of food industry insiders, and poring over secret papers, memos and industry studies, Moss pieces together what really goes on behind those giant factory doors. His fascinating tale shows how food production evolved into a high-tech science with experts calibrating the exact amount of additives needed to make us come back for more.

When first trying to invent an instant pudding in the 1940s, food scientists were flummoxed. They just couldn’t figure out how to use natural ingredients to make their recipe work. It wasn’t until General Foods gave the green light for its scientists to abandon natural ingredients, and simply cook up a mash of chemicals, that they achieved mass success.

Since that time, scientists have retooled all kinds of food, even reformulating sugar so that it’s more potent, allowing them to label packages “less sugar”, and substituting chemicals such as potassium chloride for salt so that products can be labelled “low sodium.”

Food giants wage battles for shelf space and constantly formulate new and appealing foods to sell at the lowest possible cost. The price for this low-cost food seems to be our health. In fact, today some obese North Americans are also malnourished. “I feel sorry for the public” a food scientist tells Moss.

But our obsession with salt, fat and sugar could eventually hurt the food giants. Many in the industry are bracing for an assault on their industry similar to the one waged against the tobacco industry. Are these food producers culpable for the soaring rates of major health conditions: hypertension, diabetes and obesity?

Other food books, such as The Omnivore’s Dilemma, tell us we’re safer if we shop the perimeter of the grocery store. But not Moss. He points out that a slice of bakery bread or a scoop of cottage cheese can have as much as 25 percent of our daily salt intake. He warns us not to think we’re going to fare better in health food stores. Many of those products are loaded with sodium.

After reading Salt Sugar Fat I’ve decided to take another look at how much salt I’m actually consuming. Unfortunately Moss doesn’t offer many words of wisdom about how to make smarter choices in the grocery store. This is a fascinating read but be warned: you may never enjoy junk foods like chips and Dr. Pepper —along with a great deal of other foods you once thought were healthy —again.

Heather Allen is a writer and reader living in Penticton.