Salt, Sugar, Fat: Views From a Former Food Engineer

9781400069804_custom-dbb16a744f720dce63f086565a9fe6417893bad2-s2I read Salt, Sugar, Fat by Michael Moss last week, and it absolutely confirmed my decision to not pursue food engineering. For those of you who may not remember, I was a Chemical Engineering student in college until the end of my sophomore year, when I decided that I’d like to focus more on food science, prompting me to change my major to Biological Systems Engineering: Food and Bioprocessing. This basically meant that I spent half my time in the Chemical Engineering department, and half in the Food Science department. For years, I dreamt of working on consumer food products, and all the testing and experimenting and consumer research it would entail.

But then I interned for one of the big name food companies. I was instructed to cut back the trans fat levels in a particular product. A product I had never eaten before, and probably never would outside of my testing, because I knew it was overly processed and not great nutritionally. While I loved the work, my coworkers, and the environment we were working in, I just didn’t feel like I could personally enter into a career in which I wouldn’t eat the food I was working on myself. Most of the food scientists and engineers in Salt, Sugar, Fat admitted that they don’t eat their company’s products, especially if they find out they have some underlying health problem. They know that the best way to get healthy is to cut out a lot of processed foods.

While reading the book, I realized I wasn’t alone in these feelings of guilt or culpability surrounding my work. I think I just became disenchanted with the food industry earlier than many. Robert I-San Lin of Frito-Lay long pushed for his company to seriously look at and work on the nutritional impact of their products. But as Moss put it, “Like many of the people on the research and development side of the processed food industry, the Robert Lin who went to work for Frito-Lay began his career with a pure heart, as a scientist, intent on discovery and bettering mankind…in short order, his passion for science gave way to the realities of the industry (306).” Eventually, Lin became too disillusioned while trying to reconcile company and consumer interests, and he left Frito-Lay to work on nutritional supplements.

And while Jeffrey Dunn, a former executive at Coke, says he doesn’t look back on his time at Coke with bitterness, he now spends his time marketing wholesome foods like baby carrots to pay his “karmic debt (120).”

(I feel compelled to point out that not all food scientists feel guilty when they look back on their work. Some feel that while their product wasn’t the healthiest, it did fill a consumer need or created jobs or kept themselves in work, and see no issue with that. And those are valid points, but not how I thought I’d end up feeling about my work.)

When I was talking about this book and my career decisions with a friend the other day, she asked me, “couldn’t you go work from the inside, fighting for good?” And it is true, I could have, but it would call for years of working before I could have that kind of influence or have any say in what projects or products I worked on.

And the food industry is stuck in a vicious loop. As Moss explains in the introduction, “one facet of processed food is held sacrosanct by the industry. Any improvement to the nutritional profile can in no way diminish its allure.” In my internship, I heard almost these exact words, except I also had to keep the product cost the same. These limitations and competition make it incredibly difficult to engineer a healthier product. If the flavor or textural quality dropped, or the cost rose, a competitor would swoop in with a cheaper and better-tasting product and take our product’s market share.

This vicious cycle is exactly what the industry uses as their defense for putting out overly-processed, unhealthy products, saying, “that’s what the consumer wants, and we’re not putting a gun to their head to eat it. That’s what they want. If we give them less, they’ll buy less and the competitor will get our market (200).” The competition and demands of Wall Street often outweigh any desire to make a healthier product, so it just doesn’t happen.

In making any processed food healthier, there is a broad set of challenges: the product won’t taste the same, or it might be more difficult to process, or it will cost a lot more to make and buy. Processed foods are precisely engineered to have the perfect balance of salt, sugar, fat and other ingredients. Changing one ingredient changes how the others taste or interact during processing. Salt, for example, not only overrides the bad flavors of other additives, but it also binds ingredients together and delays bacterial decay (282). You can’t just cut out salt or drastically drop the amount of fat or sugar without reworking how the product is made. Instead, companies are often just swapping out one problem ingredient for one that consumers are less worried about at the moment. When salt is a concern, for instance, sodium chloride gets replaced with potassium chloride or higher levels of fat or some other processed ingredient to create “low sodium” products. It doesn’t make the product inherently healthier; it just cuts back on the concern-of-the-day without sacrificing on flavor or cost.

In visiting Nestle’s research lab Moss noted that, “if Nestle was going to save the world from obesity or any of the other ill effects of processed foods, it wasn’t going to be in our lifetimes. The food that people bought in the grocery store was so perfectly engineered to compel overconsumption that Nestle’s scientists, for all their spectacular technology and deep knowledge of food science, were finding it impossible to come up with viable solutions (333).”

Overall, Salt, Sugar, Fat was easy to follow along with, and presented a reasonable balance of marketing and food science concerns about processed foods and the obesity epidemic. I give Michael Moss’s Salt, Sugar, Fat:

5 out of 5 stars

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  1. says

    This book is on my list and your review makes me want to read it even more. I have a friend who started working on the testing side of food science recently and I can tell by how she presents it she has some qualms about what she is doing. Great review!

  2. Emily says

    I love when you talk about your scientific background and career transitions–I find it super interesting! Thanks for the book review. The book has made it on my “to read” list!