Many years ago, when I was a callow, insensitive youth, my brother and I went on a month-long tour of the US. One of our favourite pastimes as we toured that great nation was unobtrusively sneaking up on the fattest people we came across, and surreptitiously having our picture taken with them.
I thought this was just our student humour, until many years later at a house party I came across a similar photo montage of one skinny Brit standing next to a galaxy of supersized, unaware Americans. Our host for the evening, I soon learned, had once shared the same cruel and unusual predilection.
The days of Brits looking askance at the rest of the world as XXXL are long gone. Obesity here, like there, is on the rampage. The two questions for marketers are how much are we to blame, and what are we going to do about it? In that context alone Salt, Sugar, Fat by Michael Moss is not to be missed.
This is a tough book to read if you are a marketer; to be frank, it's a tough book to read if you eat anything other than food grown in your back garden. Facing up to the story Moss narrates is invaluable if we are to have any informed debate about what we eat.
Whereas the excellent Supersize Me and Fast Food Nation lifted the lid on just how badly we were eating, Salt, Sugar, Fat tells the story of how scientists and marketers have worked hand-in-glove to create and promote processed food since the 1950s.
I read many sections of the book with eyes wide. As a marketer, what would you do if you were asked to sell a pizza that, in one serving, contains enough sodium for an adult for two-and-a-half days?
This is not a story about poor food finding its way into the food chain, like the recent horsemeat scandal. This is the story of how salt, sugar and fat have been deliberately introduced into processed food over many years to improve the taste and keep down the cost.
I'll take horsemeat lasagne any day over centrifugally recovered beef from the less salubrious parts of cattle (known colloquially as pink slime). But worry not; a quick blast of ammonia will soon see off any possible E. coli infestations. It's all a long way from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.
The good news about all this, according to Mr Moss, is that, while the problem is not yet licked, there is progress, and many of the big multinational food conglomerates recognise there is a balance to be struck between price, health, taste and convenience.
If you work in this space, you need to read this book.
Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss. Published by WH Allen.
If you only have time for this ... six key points from the book.
1. The average American eats 22 teaspoons of sugar a day. The optimum level of sugar in any food is known in the food industry as "the bliss point".
2. Soda calories don't register. Calories consumed in liquid form bypass the body's ability to register calorific intake, and fail to let you know that you have eaten enough.
3. Salt and sugar are both tasted by specific areas of the tongue. There is no taste bud for fat; instead the sensation is triggered via nerves in the mouth.
4. Salt is a learned craving. We are hard-wired to crave both fat and sugar from birth for obvious evolutionary reasons, and consumption of them lights up specific parts of our brains. Young babies reject the taste of salt and have to be weaned on to salty foods.
5. UK leads the way. If you give up salty foods for a while, your palate adjusts; you will find salty foods unpleasant. UK food regulators have championed sodium reduction here, saving 10,000 deaths a year from strokes and heart disease.
6. The louder the crunch when we put snack foods in our mouths, the greater the appeal. The faster the mouthful "melts" and disappears, the more our brain thinks there is no calorific value in the mouthful, and the more it allows us to eat before we become full. Popcorn is a classic case of this "vanishing calorie density".