Unhealthy processed foods make up a large proportion of the diet of both kids and adults in the U.S. In his entertaining book, Salt, Sugar, Fat--How the Food Giants Hooked Us, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Moss convincingly documents that manufacturers of processed foods are more concerned with maintaining and growing their $1 trillion in annual sales and substantial profits than they are with optimizing the health of Americans.1
Extensively advertised processed foods from corporations stock the shelves of grocery stores and convenience outlets. Processed foods are "engineered" to be tasty, convenient, low cost, and have long shelf lives. But these desirable traits come with a cost to health. Typically, processed foods are packed with large amounts of added salt, sugar, and fat, ingredients that make foods less healthy but highly palatable and some would even say addictive. How many of us can stop after eating just a few crunchy salt and fat-laden potato chips?
Moss explains that food scientists have discovered that the "mouth feel" of a crunchy food, like potato chips, is something we enjoy. Adding salt, sugar, and fat to foods is even more important to enhancing their desirability and enjoyment. Research has shown that there is a "bliss point" for certain optimal levels of added sugar and salt. These are the levels that make food the most pleasurable. For fat, there does not seem to be a bliss point––food preference research suggests that the more fat in or added to a food, the greater our gustatory pleasure.
A French study looking specifically at the health effects of eating processed food found that a 10% increase in the proportion of “ultraprocessed” food consumption was associated with a 14% higher risk of all-cause mortality over the 10-year duration of the study.2
Excessive salt, or more precisely sodium in a diet is associated with high blood pressure that in turn leads to heart disease and strokes. Too much dietary sugar leads to obesity and diabetes, both of which are associated with cardiovascular diseases and an increased risk of some cancers. High levels of saturated fats in a diet are also associated with heart attacks and other cardiovascular diseases.
Avoiding foods that are packed with salt, sugar, and fat in childhood helps to prevent food preferences that endure for a lifetime and end up fueling chronic diseases including heart disease, obesity, and cancer.
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1Moss M, Salt Sugar Fat. New York. Random House. 2013.
2Schnabel L, Kesse-Guyot E, Allès B, et al. Association Between Ultraprocessed Food Consumption and Risk of Mortality Among Middle-aged Adults in France. JAMA Intern Med. 2019;179(4):490–498. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2018.7289