Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us

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From a Pulitzer Prize–winning investigative reporter at The New York Times comes the explosive story of the rise of the processed ...

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The Atlantic • The Huffington Post • Men’s Journal • MSN (U.K.) • Kirkus Reviews • Publishers Weekly


From a Pulitzer Prize–winning investigative reporter at The New York Times comes the explosive story of the rise of the processed food industry and its link to the emerging obesity epidemic. Michael Moss reveals how companies use salt, sugar, and fat to addict us and, more important, how we can fight back.
In the spring of 1999 the heads of the world’s largest processed food companies—from Coca-Cola to Nabisco—gathered at Pillsbury headquarters in Minneapolis for a secret meeting. On the agenda: the emerging epidemic of obesity, and what to do about it.
Increasingly, the salt-, sugar-, and fat-laden foods these companies produced were being linked to obesity, and a concerned Kraft executive took the stage to issue a warning: There would be a day of reckoning unless changes were made. This executive then launched into a damning PowerPoint presentation—114 slides in all—making the case that processed food companies could not afford to sit by, idle, as children grew sick and class-action lawyers lurked. To deny the problem, he said, is to court disaster.
When he was done, the most powerful person in the room—the CEO of General Mills—stood up to speak, clearly annoyed. And by the time he sat down, the meeting was over.
Since that day, with the industry in pursuit of its win-at-all-costs strategy, the situation has only grown more dire. Every year, the average American eats thirty-three pounds of cheese (triple what we ate in 1970) and seventy pounds of sugar (about twenty-two teaspoons a day). We ingest 8,500 milligrams of salt a day, double the recommended amount, and almost none of that comes from the shakers on our table. It comes from processed food. It’s no wonder, then, that one in three adults, and one in five kids, is clinically obese. It’s no wonder that twenty-six million Americans have diabetes, the processed food industry in the U.S. accounts for $1 trillion a year in sales, and the total economic cost of this health crisis is approaching $300 billion a year.
In Salt Sugar Fat, Pulitzer Prize–winning investigative reporter Michael Moss shows how we got here. Featuring examples from some of the most recognizable (and profitable) companies and brands of the last half century—including Kraft, Coca-Cola, Lunchables, Kellogg, Nestlé, Oreos, Cargill, Capri Sun, and many more—Moss’s explosive, empowering narrative is grounded in meticulous, often eye-opening research.
Moss takes us inside the labs where food scientists use cutting-edge technology to calculate the “bliss point” of sugary beverages or enhance the “mouthfeel” of fat by manipulating its chemical structure. He unearths marketing campaigns designed—in a technique adapted from tobacco companies—to redirect concerns about the health risks of their products: Dial back on one ingredient, pump up the other two, and tout the new line as “fat-free” or “low-salt.” He talks to concerned executives who confess that they could never produce truly healthy alternatives to their products even if serious regulation became a reality. Simply put: The industry itself would cease to exist without salt, sugar, and fat. Just as millions of “heavy users”—as the companies refer to their most ardent customers—are addicted to this seductive trio, so too are the companies that peddle them. You will never look at a nutrition label the same way again.

Winner of the 2014 James Beard Foundation Book Award for Writing & Literature

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

While we are growing obese, the processed food industry that helped cause it are growing fat on sales, racking in more than a trillion dollars annually, even as they are costing us $300 billion a year in health expenses. For years, Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist Michael Moss has been stealthily tracking down the hidden story of the food giants' grand plans to hook us on salt, sugar, and fat, the very enticing ingredients that undermine the well-being of ourselves and our children. As one early reviewer noted, this 420-page wake-up call is best read after lunch.

The New York Times - Scott Mowbray
Mr. Moss…deftly lays out the complicated marriage of science and marketing that got us where we are…Importantly, Mr. Moss reports deeply from inside the food companies: researchers, marketers, strategists, C.E.O.'s and many who have left their work, some with regrets about how good they were at leveraging the bliss point. Salt Sugar Fat is not a polemic, nor a raised platform for food purists to fire broadsides at evil empires. This is inside stuff, and the book is all the stronger for it.
The New York Times Book Review - David Kamp
As a feat of reporting and public service, Salt Sugar Fat is a remarkable accomplishment…Moss is on his surest footing when he tethers his narrative to some convenience-food innovator…Moss doesn't villainize these men, portraying them as relatively benign figures who simply heeded the call of the times and delivered what their bosses wanted. But when he gets into their personal relationships with their own creations, the results are more indicting than any authorly polemic would ever be.
The Washington Post - Hannah Wallace
If you had any doubt as to the food industry's complicity in our obesity epidemic, it will evaporate when you read this book. Moss is devoted to showing us how ruthless these companies are at exploiting our built-in cravings for salt, sugar and fat, aggressively marketing junk food not just to children but to the poor.
Publishers Weekly
American cuisine is just a delivery system for an addictive trinity of unhealthy ingredients, according to this eye-popping exposé of the processed food industry. Pulitzer-winning New York Times reporter Moss (Palace Coup) explains the two-faced science of salt, sugar, and fat, which impart tantalizing tastes and luscious mouthfeel that light up the same neural circuits that narcotics do—Coca-Cola, he notes, calls favorite customers “heavy users”—while causing epidemic obesity, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes. But he also crafts an absorbing insiders’ view of the food industry, where these ingredients are the main weapons in a brutally competitive war for stomach-share. He takes readers into the laboratories, marketing tests, and boardrooms where the sweet, salty, cheesy “bliss point” of cereals, snacks, sodas, and frozen dinners is obsessively pursued; the scientists and executives he talks to feel torn between health concerns—almost to a person, he observes, they avoid eating the food they sell—and the market-driven imperative to stoke consumer cravings. Moss’s vivid reportage remains alive to the pleasures of junk—“the heated fat swims over the tongue to send signals of joy to the brain”—while shrewdly analyzing the manipulative profiteering behind them. The result is a mouth-watering, gut-wrenching look at the food we hate to love. (Mar.)
From the Publisher
“As a feat of reporting and a public service, Salt Sugar Fat is a remarkable accomplishment.”The New York Times Book Review
“[Michael] Moss has written a Fast Food Nation for the processed food industry. Burrowing deep inside the big food manufacturers, he discovered how junk food is formulated to make us eat more of it and, he argues persuasively, actually to addict us.”—Michael Pollan
“If you had any doubt as to the food industry’s complicity in our obesity epidemic, it will evaporate when you read this book.”The Washington Post
“Vital reading for the discerning food consumer.”The Wall Street Journal
“Propulsively written [and] persuasively argued . . . an exactingly researched, deeply reported work of advocacy journalism.”The Boston Globe
“[An] eye-popping exposé . . . Moss’s vivid reportage remains alive to the pleasures of junk—‘the heated fat swims over the tongue to send signals of joy to the brain’—while shrewdly analyzing the manipulative profiteering behind them. The result is a mouth-watering, gut-wrenching look at the food we hate to love.”Publishers Weekly
“Revelatory . . . a shocking, galvanizing manifesto against the corporations manipulating nutrition to fatten their bottom line—one of the most important books of the year.”Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“What happens when one of the country’s great investigative reporters infiltrates the most disastrous cartel of modern times: a processed food industry that’s making a fortune by slowly poisoning an unwitting population? You get this terrific, powerfully written book, jammed with startling disclosures, jaw-dropping confessions and, importantly, the charting of a path to a better, healthier future. This book should be read by anyone who tears a shiny wrapper and opens wide. That’s all of us.”—Ron Suskind, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President
“In this meticulously researched book, Michael Moss tells the chilling story of how the food giants have seduced everyone in this country. He understands a vital and terrifying truth: that we are not just eating fast food when we succumb to the siren song of sugar, fat, and salt. We are fundamentally changing our lives—and the world around us.”—Alice Waters
Salt Sugar Fat is a breathtaking feat of reporting. Michael Moss was able to get executives of the world’s largest food companies to admit that they have only one job—to maximize sales and profits—and to reveal how they deliberately entice customers by stuffing their products with salt, sugar, and fat. This is a truly important book, and anyone reading it will understand why food corporations cannot be trusted to value health over profits and why we all need to recognize and resist food marketing every time we grocery shop or vote.”—Marion Nestle, author of Food Politics and What to Eat
Library Journal
Reporter Moss, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his New York Times investigation of the dangers of contaminated meat, offers a thorough account of the processed-food industry's extensive efforts to dominate the American diet and increase consumption of its products, despite health concerns. He explains that in the 1940s, convenience foods were a novel idea, but their quick success led to an ongoing race among companies to outsell their competitors. Moss traces the development of some of the most famous products and the companies that developed them, including General Foods, Kellogg, Coca-Cola, Kraft, and Nestle. The text states that since its inception, the food industry has spent millions of dollars researching brain chemistry, "bliss points," and marketing techniques. Focusing on sugar, fat, and salt, the three pillars of processed foods, Moss illustrates how these ingredients have been calculated and engineered to create foods that consumers crave. VERDICT Through exhaustive research and insider information, Moss achieves his goal of shining a light on the insidious tactics of the food industry. Readers of food lit and exposés will not want to miss this one.—Melissa Stoeger, Deerfield P.L., IL
Kirkus Reviews
A revelatory look at America's increasing consumption of unhealthy products and at how the biggest food manufacturers ignore health risks, and employ savvy advertising campaigns, to keep us hooked on the ingredients that ensure big profit. In an era where morbid numbers of people are living with diabetes, obesity and high blood pressure, New York Times Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter Moss (Palace Coup, 1989) discovers through ardent research--much of it interviews with current and former executives of Kraft, PepsiCo and other massive conglomerates--that there is shockingly little regulation of the processes behind the design and sale of foods purposely laden with dangerous levels of salt, sugar and fat. As the average American works longer hours and spends more time outside of the home, the demand for easy-to-cook and tasty meals has skyrocketed. In response, food giants provide an enormous slate of processed food options, almost all of which require immense amounts of salt, fat and/or sugar to cover the taste of poor-quality ingredients. Pulling no punches, the author points out that the recent trend of "healthy" items is no loss for these food manufacturers, who capitalize on creating new lines of spinoff products labeled "low-salt" or "sugar-free," when in fact those products require a significant increase in one of the other triad of flavors to remain palatable. Many products are laden with these ingredients in ways that would surprise the consumer: A single cookie, for example, might require several servings' worth of undetectable salt to retain its irresistible crunch, while it also contains up to five teaspoons of sugar. Moss breaks down the chemical science behind the molecular appeal of these foods, as well as behind the advertising strategies that are so successful in getting consumers to buy not only the "healthier" versions of popular foods, but the originals, as well. If this trend is to be reversed, he argues, it might take a social revolution of empowered consumers, a goal within reach if accurate information is available and pressure is put on these companies to dramatically alter the contents of its processed foods. A shocking, galvanizing manifesto against the corporations manipulating nutrition to fatten their bottom line--one of the most important books of the year.
The Barnes & Noble Review

The opposition to Mayor Michael Bloomberg's large-soda ban captures the dilemmas involved in addressing our nation's obesity crisis. The measure, which was struck down by a state judge just as Michael Moss's Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us was published, would have prohibited the sale of sugary drinks in containers larger than sixteen ounces at restaurants, theaters, and stadiums. Bloomberg defended the ban, which was passed by the city's Board of Health, by arguing that soda and other sugary drinks are a leading cause of obesity. Meanwhile, beverage industry groups accused the government of trampling on consumers' rights, a view apparently shared by the slight majority of New Yorkers who, according to polls, oppose any limits on their prodigious soda habits. The judge, in blocking the measure, called it "arbitrary and capricious."

I wonder whether the judge might have been tempted to rule differently had he read Salt Sugar Fat first. (One of Moss's chapters covers soda, and it's framed by the remarkable story of Jeffrey Dunn, a former higher-up at Coca-Cola who is now "doing penance" by marketing baby carrots to kids.) The author's meticulous examination of the processed food industry is alarming, and it could have the potential to be galvanizing were there any clear way out of our salty, sugary, fatty mess. It's dispiriting to finish the book feeling that solutions are elusive, but Moss, a Pulitzer Prize–winning investigative reporter for The New York Times, does an excellent job of explaining how unhealthy processed food, originally "imagined as occasional fare," came to completely dominate the American diet.

Our family structures have changed, of course, with more women working outside of the home, more single-parent households, and, as a result, less time for home cooking. In the 1970s, market researchers began to find that for consumers, convenience was key, and executives at some of the food companies Moss spoke to still rationalize that they are giving the people what they want: inexpensive, easy sustenance. What's problematic is how dependent that sustenance is on the ingredients of Moss's title, from sugary breakfast cereals to Oscar Meyer's meat- and cheese-based Lunchables to frozen microwavable Hot Pockets, which contain more than 100 ingredients and close to a day's recommended limits of saturated fat and salt. Indeed, as the processed food industry has expanded, salt, sugar, and fat have become its three pillars, cheap components that serve many other functions beyond the obvious ones: adding bulk to food, stimulating overeating, and covering up the tastes of chemical additives, to name a few.

As part of his research, Moss spoke to a number of food scientists, learning how sophisticated they are in formulating their products to maximize appeal. For instance, they do extensive testing to determine a food's "bliss point," the "precise amount of sweetness — no more, no less — that makes food and drink most enjoyable." Similar testing is done with fat, whose history here is fascinating. During the 1980s, the popularity of whole milk plunged. As skim and reduced-fat milks rose in popularity, the extracted milkfat began to pile up. The dairy industry realized it could convert that excess fat into cheese, which is no longer enjoyed primarily on its own but as an often secondary ingredient tucked away in processed food. (The amount of cheese Americans eat, on average, per year has tripled since 1970, from eleven pounds to thirty- three pounds.) Most of the unhealthy saturated fats ingested in the U.S. come not from cookies and ice cream but from cheese and beef, which, because their industries are government subsidized, are actually promoted to Americans despite their clear risks: as recently as 2010 a USDA guide recommended Americans increase their cheese consumption.

Moss credits companies for occasional attempts to improve their products' nutritional profiles. The example of Kraft is particularly interesting, as tobacco behemoth Philip Morris owned the company until 2007; the tobacco execs were experienced in dealing with public health concerns, warning the food execs that salt, sugar, and fat might one day cost their industry as much as nicotine had cost Big Tobacco. Still, former Philip Morris CEO Geoffrey Bible, speaking of these ingredients, told Moss, "Well, that's what the consumer wants, and we're not putting a gun to their head to eat it.... If we give them less, they'll buy less, and the competitor will get our market. So you're sort of trapped." Moss corroborates the sense of corporate dilemma, pointing out that when Kraft "down-formulated" some of its products as part of a 2003 anti- obesity initiative, rivals muscled in with sweeter, saltier, fattier products and cut into their market share, until Kraft responded in kind.

Giving the people what they want: you can tell by the word "hooked" in Moss's subtitle that he doesn't quite buy it. (The book is peppered with references to the addictive powers of processed food, some of which are a bit overheated.) But as the response to New York's proposed soda ban demonstrates, many people aren't ready for what they derisively call the "nanny state" to step in; meanwhile, companies have a way of making consumers feel empowered by the number of choices they have in the grocery aisles, as unwholesome and ultimately narrow as they may be. Notably, Bible supports federal limits on salt, sugar, and fat, which would force the entire industry to make adjustments across the board without having to worry about the competition.

There are thorny issues of class at play here, and unfortunately Moss explores them only briefly at the end of the book. In many poor neighborhoods, convenience stores are abundant while supermarkets are rare. What's more, processed foods are significantly cheaper than fresh, healthier foods. These are big problems that Moss just touches on, concluding simply by urging consumers to educate themselves. He writes, "They may have salt, sugar, and fat on their side, but we, ultimately, have the power to make choices." As he is well aware, though, some people have more choices than others: it's telling that many of the wealthy food executives Moss spoke to about their products wouldn't dream of eating the stuff themselves.

Barbara Spindel has covered books for Time Out New York,, Details, andSpin. She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies.

Reviewer: Barbara Spindel

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780812982190
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/18/2014
  • Pages: 480
  • Sales rank: 28,760
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael Moss

Michael Moss was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting in 2010, and was a finalist for the prize in 1999 and 2006. He is also the recipient of a Loeb Award and an Overseas Press Club citation. Before coming to The New York Times, he was a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, Newsday, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two sons.

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Read an Excerpt

Salt Sugar Fat

How the Food Giants Hooked Us
By Michael Moss

Random House

Copyright © 2013 Michael Moss
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9781400069804

part one sugar

chapter one

“Exploiting the Biology of the Child”

The first thing to know about sugar is this: Our bodies are hard-wired for sweets.

Forget what we learned in school from that old diagram called the tongue map, the one that says our five main tastes are detected by five distinct parts of the tongue. That the back has a big zone for blasts of bitter, the sides grab the sour and the salty, and the tip of the tongue has that one single spot for sweet. The tongue map is wrong. As researchers would discover in the 1970s, its creators misinterpreted the work of a German graduate student that was published in 1901; his experiments showed only that we might taste a little more sweetness on the tip of the tongue. In truth, the entire mouth goes crazy for sugar, including the upper reaches known as the palate. There are special receptors for sweetness in every one of the mouth’s ten thousand taste buds, and they are all hooked up, one way or another, to the parts of the brain known as the pleasure zones, where we get rewarded for stoking our bodies with energy. But our zeal doesn’t stop there. Scientists are now finding taste receptors that light up for sugar all the way down our esophagus to our stomach and pancreas, and they appear to be intricately tied to our appetites.

The second thing to know about sugar: Food manufacturers are well aware of the tongue map folly, along with a whole lot more about why we crave sweets. They have on staff cadres of scientists who specialize in the senses, and the companies use their knowledge to put sugar to work for them in countless ways. Sugar not only makes the taste of food and drink irresistible. The industry has learned that it can also be used to pull off a string of manufacturing miracles, from donuts that fry up bigger to bread that won’t go stale to cereal that is toasty-brown and fluffy. All of this has made sugar a go-to ingredient in processed foods. On average, we consume 71 pounds of caloric sweeteners each year. That’s 22 teaspoons of sugar, per person, per day. The amount is almost equally split three ways, with the sugar derived from sugar cane, sugar beets, and the group of corn sweeteners that includes high-fructose corn syrup (with a little honey and syrup thrown into the mix).

That we love, and crave, sugar is hardly news. Whole books have been devoted to its romp through history, in which people overcame geography, strife, and overwhelming technical hurdles to feed their insatiable habit. The highlights start with Christopher Columbus, who brought sugar cane along on his second voyage to the New World, where it was planted in Spanish Santo Domingo, was eventually worked into granulated sugar by enslaved Africans, and, starting in 1516, was shipped back to Europe to meet the continent’s surging appetite for the stuff. The next notable development came in 1807 when a British naval blockade of France cut off easy access to sugar cane crops, and entrepreneurs, racing to meet demand, figured out how to extract sugar from beets, which could be grown easily in temperate Europe. Cane and beets remained the two main sources of sugar until the 1970s, when rising prices spurred the invention of high-fructose corn syrup, which had two attributes that were attractive to the soda industry. One, it was cheap, effectively subsidized by the federal price supports for corn; and two, it was liquid, which meant that it could be pumped directly into food and drink. Over the next thirty years, our consumption of sugar-sweetened soda more than doubled to 40 gallons a year per person, and while this has tapered off since then, hitting 32 gallons in 2011, there has been a commensurate surge in other sweet drinks, like teas, sports ades, vitamin waters, and energy drinks. Their yearly consumption has nearly doubled in the past decade to 14 gallons a person.

Far less well known than the history of sugar, however, is the intense research that scientists have conducted into its allure, the biology and psychology of why we find it so irresistible.

For the longest time, the people who spent their careers studying nutrition could only guess at the extent to which people are attracted to sugar. They had a sense, but no proof, that sugar was so powerful it could compel us to eat more than we should and thus do harm to our health. That all changed in the late 1960s, when some lab rats in upstate New York got ahold of Froot Loops, the supersweet cereal made by Kellogg. The rats were fed the cereal by a graduate student named Anthony Sclafani who, at first, was just being nice to the animals in his care. But when Sclafani noticed how fast they gobbled it up, he decided to concoct a test to measure their zeal. Rats hate open spaces; even in cages, they tend to stick to the shadowy corners and sides. So Sclafani put a little of the cereal in the brightly lit, open center of their cages—normally an area to be avoided—to see what would happen. Sure enough, the rats overcame their instinctual fears and ran out in the open to gorge.

Their predilection for sweets became scientifically significant a few years later when Sclafani—who’d become an assistant professor of psychology at Brooklyn College—was trying to fatten some rats for a study. Their standard Purina Dog Chow wasn’t doing the trick, even when Sclafani added lots of fats to the mix. The rats wouldn’t eat enough to gain significant weight. So Sclafani, remembering the Froot Loops experiment, sent a graduate student out to a supermarket on Flatbush Avenue to buy some cookies and candies and other sugar-laden products. And the rats went bananas, they couldn’t resist. They were particularly fond of sweetened condensed milk and chocolate bars. They ate so much over the course of a few weeks that they grew obese.

“Everyone who owns pet rats knows if you give them a cookie they will like that, but no one experimentally had given them all they want,” Sclafani told me when I met him at his lab in Brooklyn, where he continues to use rodents in studying the psychology and brain mechanisms that underlie the desire for high-fat and high-sugar foods. When he did just that, when he gave his rats all they wanted, he saw their appetite for sugar in a new light. They loved it, and this craving completely overrode the biological brakes that should have been saying: Stop.

The details of Sclafani’s experiment went into a 1976 paper that is revered by researchers as one of the first experimental proofs of food cravings. Since its publication, a whole body of research has been undertaken to link sugar to compulsive overeating. In Florida, researchers have conditioned rats to expect an electrical shock when they eat cheesecake, and still they lunge for it. Scientists at Princeton found that rats taken off a sugary diet will exhibit signs of withdrawal, such as chattering teeth. Still, these studies involve only rodents, which in the world of science are known to have a limited ability to predict human physiology and behavior.

What about people and Froot Loops?

For some answers to this question, and for most of the foundational science on how and why we are so attracted to sugar, the food industry has turned to a place called the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. It is located a few blocks west of the Amtrak station, in a bland five-story brick building easily overlooked in the architectural wasteland of the district known as University City—except for “Eddy,” the giant sculpture that stands guarding the entrance. Eddy is a ten-foot-high fragment of a face, and he perfectly captures the obsessions of those inside: He is all nose and mouth.

Getting buzzed through the center’s front door is like stepping into a clubhouse for PhDs. The scientists here hang out in the corridors to swap notions that lead to wild discoveries, like how cats are unable to taste sweets, or how the cough that results from sipping a high-quality olive oil is caused by an anti-inflammatory agent, which may prove to be yet another reason for nutritionists to love this oil so much. The researchers at Monell bustle to and from conference rooms and equipment-filled labs and peer through one-way mirrors at the children and adults who eat and drink their way through the center’s many ongoing experiments. Over the last forty years, more than three hundred physiologists, chemists, neuroscientists, biologists, and geneticists have cycled through Monell to help decipher the mechanisms of taste and smell along with the complex psychology that underlies our love for food. They are among the world’s foremost authorities on taste. In 2001, they identified the actual protein molecule, T1R3, that sits in the taste bud and detects sugar. More recently they have been tracking the sugar sensors that are spread throughout the digestive system, and they now suspect that these sensors are playing a variety of key roles in our metabolism. They have even solved one of the more enduring mysteries in food cravings: the marijuana-induced state known as “the munchies.” This came about in 2009 when Robert Margolskee, a molecular biologist and associate director of the center, joined other scientists in discovering that the sweet taste receptors on the tongue get aroused by endocannabinoids—substances that are produced in the brain to increase our appetite. They are chemical sisters to THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, which may explain why smoking marijuana can trigger hunger pangs. “Our taste cells are turning out to be smarter than we thought, and more involved in regulating our appetites,” Margolskee told me.

The stickiest subject at Monell, however, is not sugar. It’s money. Taxpayers fund about half of the center’s $17.5 million annual budget through federal grants, but much of the rest of its operation comes from the food industry, including the big manufacturers, as well as several tobacco companies. A large golden plaque in the lobby pays homage to PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Kraft, Nestlé, Philip Morris, among others. It’s an odd arrangement, for sure, one that evokes past efforts by the tobacco industry to buy “research” that put cigarettes in a favorable light. At Monell, the industry funding buys companies a privileged access to the center and its labs. They get exclusive first looks at the center’s research, often as early as three years before the information goes public, and are also able to engage some of Monell’s scientists to conduct special studies for their particular needs. But Monell prides itself on the integrity and independence of its scientists. Some of their work, in fact, is funded with monies from the lawsuits that states brought against the tobacco manufacturers.

“At Monell, scientists choose their research projects based solely on their own curiosity and interests and are deeply committed to the pursuit of fundamental knowledge,” the center said in response to my questions about its financial structure. Indeed, as I would discover, though Monell receives industry funding, some of its scientists sound like consumer activists when they speak about the power their benefactors wield, especially when it comes to children.

This tension between the industry’s excitement about the research at Monell and the center’s own unease about the industry’s practices dates back to some of the center’s earliest research on our taste buds—based on age, sex, and race. Back in the 1970s, researchers at Monell discovered that kids and African Americans were particularly keen on foods that were salty and sweet. They gave solutions of varying sweetness and saltiness to a group of 140 adults and then to a group of 618 children aged nine to fifteen, and the kids were found to like the highest level of sweet and salty—even more than the adults. Twice as many kids as adults chose the sweetest and saltiest solutions. (This was the first scientific proof of what parents, watching their kids lunge for the sugar bowl at the breakfast table, already knew instinctively.) The difference among adults was less striking but still significant: More African Americans chose the sweetest and saltiest solutions.

One of Monell’s sponsors, Frito-Lay, was particularly interested in the salt part of the study, since the company made most of its money on salty chips. Citing Monell’s work in a 1980 internal memo, a Frito-Lay food scientist summed up the finding on kids and added, “Racial Effect: It has been shown that blacks (in particular, black adolescents) displayed the greatest preference for a high concentration of salt.” The Monell scientist who did this groundbreaking study, however, raised another issue that reflected his anxiety about the food industry. Kids didn’t just like sugar more than adults, this scientist, Lawrence Greene, pointed out in a paper published in 1975. Data showed they were actually consuming more of the stuff, and Greene suggested there might be a chicken-and-egg issue at play: Some of this craving for sugar may not be innate in kids but rather is the result of the massive amounts of sugar being added to processed foods. Scientists call this a learned behavior, and Greene was one of the first to suggest that the increasingly sweet American diet could be driving the desire for more sugar, which, he wrote, “may or may not correspond to optimum nutritional practices.”

In other words, the sweeter the industry made its food, the sweeter kids liked their food to be.

I wanted to explore this idea a bit more deeply, so I spent some time with Julie Mennella, a biopsychologist who first came to Monell in 1988. In graduate school, she had studied maternal behavior in animals and realized that no one was examining the influence that food and flavors had on women who were mothers. She joined Monell to answer a set of unknowns about food. Do the flavors of the food you eat transmit to your milk? Do they transmit to amniotic fluid? Do babies develop likes and dislikes for foods even before they are born?

“One of the most fundamental mysteries is why we like the foods that we do,” Mennella said. “The liking of sweet is part of the basic biology of a child. When you think of the taste system, it makes one of the most important decisions of all: whether to accept a food. And, once we do, to warn the digestive system of impending nutrients. The taste system is our gatekeeper and one of the research approaches has been to take a developmental route, to look from the beginning—and what you see is that children are living in different sensory worlds than you and I. As a group, they prefer much higher levels of sweet and salt, rejecting bitter more than we do. I would argue that part of the reason children like high levels of sweet and salt is a reflection of their basic biology.”


Excerpted from Salt Sugar Fat by Michael Moss Copyright © 2013 by Michael Moss. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Interviews & Essays

Q&A with Michael Moss

How did you land on salt, sugar, and fat as your way to write about the industry? Why these three ingredients.?

I'd been investigating a surge in deadly outbreaks of E. coli in meat when an industry source, a microbiologist, suggested that if I wanted to see an even bigger public health hazard, I should look at what food companies were intentionally adding to their products, starting with salt. And sure enough, when I looked at this — by gaining access to high level industry officials and a trove of sensitive, internal records — a window opened on how aggressive the industry was wielding not only salt, but sugar and fat, too. These are the pillars of processed foods, the three ingredients without which there would be no processed foods. Salt, sugar and fat drive consumption by adding flavor and allure. But surprisingly, they also mask bitter flavors that develop in the manufacturing process. They enable these foods to sit in warehouses or on the grocery shelf for months. And, most critically to the industry's financial success, they are very inexpensive.

So, how big is the processed food industry, exactly? What kind of scale are we talking about here?

Huge. Grocery sales now top $1 trillion a year in the U.S., with more than 300 manufacturers employing 1.4 million workers, or 12 percent of all American manufacturing jobs. Global sales exceed $3 trillion. But the figure I find most revealing is 60,000: That's the number of different products found on the shelves of our largest supermarkets.

How did this get so big?

The food processing industry is more than a century old — if you count the invention of breakfast cereals - so it's been steady growth. But things really took off in the 1950s with the promotion of convenience foods whose design and marketing was aimed at the increasing numbers of families with both parents working outside the home. The industry's expansion, since then, has been entirely unrestrained. While food safety is heavily regulated, the government has been industry's best friend and partner in encouraging Americans to become more dependent on processed foods.

What three things should a health-conscious supermarket shopper keep in mind?

The most alluring products — those with the highest amounts of salt, sugar and fat — are strategically placed at eye-level on the grocery shelf. You typically have to stoop down to find, say, plain oatmeal. (Healthier products are generally up high or down low.) Companies also play the better-nutrition card by plastering their packaging with terms like "all natural," "contains whole grains," "contains real fruit juice," and "lean," which belie the true contents of the products. Reading labels is not easy. Only since the 1990s have the manufacturers even been required to reveal the true salt, sugar, fat and caloric loads of their products, which are itemized in a box called the "nutrient facts." But one game that many companies still play is to divide these numbers in half, or even thirds, by reporting this critical information per serving — which are typically tiny portions. In particular, they do this for cookies and chips, knowing that most people can't resist eating the entire three-serving bag. Check it out sometime. See how many "servings" that little bag of chips contains.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 66 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 66 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 28, 2013

    Eye opening...

    Remember when you did not eat in a car, ate breakfast at home, and desserts were not served every night?

    These companies are slowly killing each of us.

    This book gets me mad and I will eat healthier as a result of knowing these food companies do not care about any of us.

    30 out of 35 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 8, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    We Are Food Addicts

    Michael Moss's Salt Sugar Fat is an enlightening and thought provoking study in the role of big business for helping to create a craving in this country for processed foods that are overly saturated with fats, salts and sugars. Why? To make their products the most popular, creating more demand which in turn creates larger revenues! With their 'brand' established, the public is ripe for the new, improved version, slightly different versions, new products with 'tweeked' flavors. Did you know there is some magical number for sweetness? Hit that number and test 'victims' LOVE the taste! Same for fats and salt! With so many households with both parents working, so many single mothers working, convenience seems to reign supreme over nutrition. Once our taste buds get hold of the 'enhanced' foods, we find an apple just plain boring! Imagine what kids think? Their taste buds are programmed by outside influences-sugary, salty, fatty foods you can eat on the run.

    The U.S. government looked on for years before starting a very slow campaign towards eating right. Nice. Job.

    This is a must read for anyone who eats! Tony the Tiger is NOT your friend!

    This edition was provided by NetGalley and Random House in exchange for my honest review.

    21 out of 22 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 30, 2013

    I an RN who cares for people with illnesses directly related to

    I an RN who cares for people with illnesses directly related to what the have eaten over the past 40 or 50 years.  Heart attacks, congestive hear failure, stroke, diabetes, colon cancer, peripheral vascular disease, morbid obesity and many more.  There is governmental protection of the food giants that allows billions of profits annually.  Yet Medicare is sinking fast due to the explosion of healthcare required to pay for these preventable diseases.  And healthcare providers are being punished by reducing and withholding reimbursement if we can't improve their health and prevent rehospitalization.  What's wrong with this picture?  I am held to account for not fixing something the government allowed, and even encouraged?

    8 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 25, 2013


    While it is true every person has a responsibility to eat "right" and exercise, the point is that the industries are engineering the food in a way that makes it almost impossible to stop once you start. When theystart making multi faceted kosher salt so the flavor will stay in your mouth longer, there is something offensivly wrong with that. It isnt honest to deceive consumers like that. Ultimatly it has to fall on the individual, this book has enlightened me and i will be much more cautious in putting my faith in these companies who have been a childhood staple. This book is a definate must read. This book was also featured on Dr Oz and his examples were really quite amazing.

    8 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 18, 2013

    I think on some level I knew a lot of what he writes about, but

    I think on some level I knew a lot of what he writes about, but nonetheless, having it all laid out there was eye-opening. Moss is a great journalist and this reads very well.

    8 out of 10 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 13, 2013

    the book was decent , I hate how we blame the fast food companie

    the book was decent , I hate how we blame the fast food companies yet it is our choice to buy the food, they are not jamming it down our throats.

    7 out of 21 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 14, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    This book should be required reading for anyone wanting to chang

    This book should be required reading for anyone wanting to change their eating habits and living a healthier life. The system is rigged against you. They bombard you with advertising and also manipulate the food to get you hooked (in my opinion). After reading this book I realized I need to take charge of my eating habits and think more about what I eat.

    6 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 8, 2013

    motivation to make a change

    My brother, whom I always assumed was a little insane or "out there," has been saying for years that food companies add things to food to make them addictive. Not only is he right, but it's much worse than even he assumed. If you have a problem with your addiction to processed food, this book will at least open your eyes to the reality of what you are putting in your body. It might even make it less appetizing enough to help you make a change and get off the crap. So fascinating and readable as well!

    6 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 20, 2013

    Good info but rambling

    I enjoyed reading this book though it was a disorganized read, found myself wondering if the author was going to get to the point. Well researched.

    I eat pretty healthy but, like most busy Americans, rely on cheap, convenient foods. In the couple weeks since finishing this book, I find I am more mindful of what I am buying and eating.

    And, I think the exposure to the science (marketing and food engineering) gave me some tools to control myself when I succumb to my trigger foods. Somehow that knowledge that these foods are truly addictive has helped me curb my cravings. And, as I have known for many years, when I abstain completely, my cravings do go away.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 1, 2013

    I'm interested to read it but haven't yet. I find it slightly ir

    I'm interested to read it but haven't yet. I find it slightly ironic we place the blame on these companies, however, when the very fact that these products are so popular is because Americans buy them. We all know at this point that soda, Twinkies, McDonald's burgers are not good for us, but most people persist in eating them anyways.

    4 out of 42 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 12, 2013

    Highly Recommend

    This is an interesting book on how the giant food companies have been able to "pull the wool" over our eyes for so many years. It is also disheartening to have quite a few of the CEO's, etc. of these companies say they don't eat the food they market. What does that tell you about their products? If they don't eat them why should we!

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 6, 2013

    Not only should everyone in America read Salt Sugar Fat, but it

    Not only should everyone in America read Salt Sugar Fat, but it should be required. Moss details the processed food industry, breaking down its contribution to the modern obesity crisis. The reporting is meticulous in detailing the rise of the corporate food giants and the tricks they use to entice consumers to their unhealthy products. Moss exposes how processed foods are loaded with extras to create an addictive bliss point, making them almost drug-like in their allure. Not only that, but he likewise details the excessive advertising and marketing (much directed at children) used to lure customers. Worst of all, he even gets some food executives to admit they don’t eat their company’s own products. The book leads to the unavoidable conclusion that the processed food industry’s race to the bottom (at Wall Street’s behest) has caused a public health crisis in America. Amazing five star reporting. By far, Salt Sugar Fat is the best book I’ve read this year.  

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 27, 2013

    Good and easy read

    Good info and background on how the food giants got to be how they are. You will see their not-so-pretty path, our gov't's support and involvement, and learn at the same time some specific results of their tactics on our health and bodies. They knew what they were feeding us resulted in health problems, i.e., heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, etc., but they merrily and aggressively pursued their path of micro-studying our habits, likes/dislikes, what we want and need, to lead our health down the road to perdition so that they could/can exceed last yr's profits. What do we hear on the news today? "Shame on you, public, you need to exercise more." Well written and good read.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 9, 2013

    The inside story of the processed food industry

    Engaging writing gives the reader the feel of getting the “inside” information as we tag along with the author as he interviews processed food industry company top officials, advertisers and scientists, and visits research labs. The author reveals how the industry adjusts sugar, salt and fat in processed foods and beverages so that the consumer’s brain reaches the “bliss point” and the person craves more and more---thus resulting in health problems such as obesity. There is also a lot of information about how products are designed to be convenient and visually appealing, and where they are placed in supermarkets to entice buyers. The book essentially reveals how the processed food and beverage industry manipulates and misleads consumers into purchasing and eating unhealthful products so that the companies can meet the demands of Wall Street analysts for greater and greater profits. The book’s shortcoming is that it doesn’t tell readers what they can do, nor does it provide information about what health professionals and advocates are already doing.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 9, 2013

    Very educational

    I think that should be actually be happening because a woman died because of eating so much fast-food so she got so fat they had to kill her.

    2 out of 62 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 4, 2013

    Best book I hqve read in the last thirty years!

    5 stars

    2 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 25, 2013

    Highly recommended

    Telling story of how the huge processed food industry has been decieving the public for years and became one of the major contributors to obesity in this country.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 14, 2013

    A must read

    Excellent investigative reporting. So often books of this type will say all they have to say that's relevent in the first third of the book. Not so here. Powerful reporting from start to finish.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 12, 2013

    Interesting, but wordy

    Could have been said in many less words

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 10, 2013

    *A full executive summary of this book will be available at newb

    *A full executive summary of this book will be available at newbooksinbrief dot com, on or before Tuesday, April 16, 2013.

    You open up a bag of chips intending to eat only a few handfuls. You find the chips tasting quite good, and a few handfuls turns into a few more. Just one more... o.k., last one... definitely the last one. A few minutes later you find yourself staring down at an empty bag. Then your stomach starts to hurt--then your heart. The guilt isn't far behind. Who among us hasn't experienced this at one time or another? This is junk food in a nutshell: it tastes great (practically irresistible) and is very convenient, but if you indulge too much (which sometimes seems all too easy), it's not too good for you. All of this has an easy explanation, it's right there on the label: impressive portions of salt, sugar and fat, the junk food trifecta. Each has its own appeal, and each is very inexpensive (which explains why it's in our food), but over the years each has also been implicated in some of our most common and serious conditions and diseases, including obesity, heart disease and diabetes.

    Unfortunately, the junk food trifecta is not only popping up in our junk food, it is increasingly being featured in virtually all of the processed foods that we eat--from chips and soda, to canned food and prepared meals, to cake and ice-cream. And as salt, sugar and fat have become more common in the foods that we eat, the conditions and illnesses associated with their abuse have reached epidemic proportions. In his new book Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us journalist Michael Moss takes us behind the labels and explores the history and practices of the processed food industry--a story that features the rise of salt, sugar and fat, and the deterioration of our health.

    The journalistic expose is inherently a tension-filled genre. On the one hand, there is often an issue of real public concern at play; but on the other hand, it is ever in the interest of the journalist to inflate the controversy (and the blame). Moss does do a fairly good job of steering clear of these traps--for the most part--though the objective reader will occasionally rankle at Moss' presentation, and his choice of words and focus. On the whole, I've come away with a renewed interest and concern in just what goes into the food that I eat, and how much salt, sugar and fat it contains--and this, I think, is very valuable in itself. A full executive summary of the book will be available at newbooksinbrief dot com, on or before Tuesday, April 16. A podcast discussion of the book will be available shortly thereafter.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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