The Common Good

If You Eat Food, Read This

If you eat food, here are two newish books you should know about.

'Fat Chance' and 'Salt Sugar Fat'
'Fat Chance' and 'Salt Sugar Fat'

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You may already have met Robert H. Lustig, author of Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease (2012). Lustig is the UCSF professor whose surprisingly riveting 90-minute lecture, "Sugar: The Bitter Truth," has already had nearly 3.5 million hits on YouTube. The thesis of his lecture: it's not dietary fat that's making Americans gain weight, it's sugar. And sugar is doing much worse things than increasing our clothing size. It's setting us up for a whole range of lethal diseases that are almost entirely avoidable.

In Fat Chance Lustig writes about sugar, going into much greater detail about what it does in and to our bodies. He also writes about how various foods cause physical addiction, how the food industry keeps us full of junk, how the government helps the food industry ruin our health, why people gain weight, why diets fail, how people can lose weight — he's all over the map. But if you're not enslaved to linear thinking, you may well enjoy this fascinating collection of data and explanations as well as Lustig's sassy attitude.

Don't be put off by the title, by the way. I think it and the cover illustration are both insulting and misleading, and the subtitle makes the book sound like either an extended scold or a dreary set of rules for would-be ascetics. No, no, no. Lustig goes to great lengths to avoid blaming or shaming people who wish they weighed less. His concern is with keeping people — both convex and concave — in good health, and he'd like all of us to join his battle against the Evil Food Empire that is doing us in.

Once you've read Fat Chance you'll be loaded for bear. Michael Moss to the rescue — he'll tell you where to aim your rifle.

In Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us (2013), Moss, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter, tells what the food industry has been up to during the last couple of decades. Food executives, Moss says, are nervous: people are figuring out that convenience foods aren't good for them.

Stripped of nature's nutrients and loaded with fat, sugar, and salt, most of today's grocery-store items are engineered to provide the maximum taste thrill for the minimum price so food companies can make maximum profits and give Wall Street maximum satisfaction.

As engineered foods have gained popularly, however, their consumers have gained weight. At the same time, obesity-related diseases have added billions of dollars to health-care costs.

"Obesity is literally an epidemic in this country, and some people's ideas for addressing this public health issue could directly or indirectly affect the entire agriculture industry, from farm to consumer," a Philip Morris vice president, Jay Poole, warned an agricultural economics group.

Yes, that Philip Morris. The cigarette manufacturer, who once fought any publicity indicating that smoking might be bad for you, owned General Foods and Kraft in 1999 when Poole issued that warning, and they acquired Nabisco the next year. The food giants — including not only Philip Morris affiliates but also Kellogg's, Coke, Oscar Mayer, Cargill, Frito-Lay, and Dr. Pepper — had no intention of letting customers slip away to the produce aisle.

They would fight back with whatever weapons they could muster: the science of addiction, misleading labeling, false claims, selling to less-regulated countries, advertising to children, relentless lobbying of legislators and government agencies.

I especially enjoyed Moss's repeated observation, after lunching with one food company executive after another, that the executive looked trim and healthy — and would not eat his company's products. You might not want to either after you've read this book.

Oh, and never fear — Salt Sugar Fat is not a downer (unless you read it while drinking Coke and eating Fritos). It reveals, but it doesn't preach. You'll enjoy the stories Moss tells. He hopes you will find it a useful tool for defending yourself when you walk through the grocery store doors.

LaVonne Neff is an amateur theologian and cook; lover of language and travel; wife, mother, grandmother, godmother, dogmother; perpetual student, constant reader, and Christian contrarian. She blogs at Lively Dust and at The Neff Review.

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