Book Review: Designed to Allure, Engineered for Harm: The Creation and Marketing of Processed Food

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Bill Wiist from Northern Arizona University reviews “Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us” by Michael Moss

Image Credit: John Seb Barber @ Flickr

In “Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us” the reader “sits in” on interviews with processed food industry executives and scientists, “tastes” product formulations and “reads” confidential documents.  Through the engaging writing style the reader feels privy to an insider’s view of the industry’s decision-making, research and marketing processes.  We learn that the industry adjusts the amount of sugar in their products so consumers reach the “bliss point” and want more; adjusts the amount and type of fat so that the “mouthfeel” makes the consumer crave more. We learn that the industry insists that salt is essential for production and shelf life. The processed food companies hire specialized research firms to conduct psychological and neurologic research that enables them to fine tune their products to allure and keep the consumer eating their product lines. We learn how products are packaged for appeal and convenience, and how advertizing targets children and moms.  We learn where products are strategically placed in the supermarket to entice consumers.

Moss shows that the industry deliberately manipulates the level of sugar, salt and fat in their products so that consumers crave the products, or according to some scientists, become “addicted.”  Many of the executives who make the decisions about the content of the products don’t care about the health effects of products. For the highly competitive companies such as Kraft, General Foods, General Mills, Coca Cola and PepsiCo, what matters is market share, per capita sales, and ensuring that quarterly profits increase sufficiently to keep Wall Street happy.  Thus, their marketing arms drive what type of products the company produces. Executives who take a company toward more healthful products but that show decreased revenue are quickly castigated by Wall Street analysts. In order to keep the industry unregulated and subsidized it influences elected officials and government agencies. When a company is criticized or threatened with regulation it deploys a public relations firm to frame and promulgate messages to sway opinion to its favor.

Although the book is not a review of the scientific literature on the health effects of salt, sugar and fat, it does cite some relevant scientific studies.  Moss also drew upon the Legacy Tobacco documents (Phillip Morris owned food companies such as Kraft) and documents from business organizations and industry professional associations. Although a great deal of information about food industry tactics was already detailed in Marion Nestle’s “Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health” and Michele Simon’s “Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines Our Health and How to Fight Back”, “Salt Sugar Fat”  does make an important contribution with its insider viewpoint.  As Moss intended the book serves as a wake-up call about industry tactics.  It stimulates readers to study processed food package ingredient labels, to be more aware of the placement of processed food products in the supermarket, and to more carefully scrutinize advertizing.

But, I was appalled by the proposed solution with which Moss concluded the book.  After detailing the industry’s intentional manipulations, subterfuge, deceit, and carefully crafted products and advertizing, his solution was the age-old “blame the victim” platitude about raising consumer awareness to make better choices, a model that public health has been moving away from for decades.  Moss cited a few examples of the work of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) but did not include information about the public health law work on foods done by  Yale’s Rudd Center on Food Policy and Obesity and others, the food policy work of the  Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, or information from web sites such as Corporations and Health Watch. Discussion of the particularly relevant model delineated by the Commission on the Social Determinants of Health, and the related Health in All Policies and Intersectoral Governance was not included.

A concluding chapter about the public health work that has been done, including regulation and law, to address the issues raised in the book would have greatly increased the impact of the book. According to Moss the processed food and beverage industry bears a large measure of blame for damaging the public’s health. He also showed that in order to satisfy Wall Street’s demand for ever-increasingly large profits, the industry on its own, cannot take action to ameliorate or prevent that damage. Inclusion of a discussion of public health regulation and law and other measures would have encouraged both the public and health professionals to take effective action.  The omission of public health solutions is an egregious flaw in the book.

“Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us” by Michael Moss is published by WH Allen ISBN: 978-1400069804

Bill Wiist is a Senior Scientist in the Interdisciplinary Health Policy Institute, and Professor of Health Sciences at Northern Arizona University. He has authored publications about the influence of corporations on health policy, including “The corporate play book, health, and democracy: The snack food and beverage industry’s tactics in context.” In Stuckler, D., & Siegel, K. (Eds). Sick Societies: Responding to the Global Challenge of Chronic Disease. 2011. UK: Oxford University Press. Bill.Wiist@nau.edu The author declares no conflict of interest.

Books reviewed in Speaking of Medicine are independent of the book’s publisher. Reviewers do not receive a fee and in this case Dr Wiist reviewed his own copy of the book.

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