A recent article published on the homepage of the New York Times webpage is getting a lot of traffic, even though the entire spread is 14 pages long and takes a significant amount of time to read through. Andrew forwarded this link to me one evening and I read it after dinner – enthralled, enraged, and all the more curious about the business of junk food and the national food policies that fuel its consumption.
“The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food” by Pulitzer prize-winning writer Michael Moss is an excerpt from his book, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, set to release later this month, and even in the 14 pages published online and in the NYT Magazine, conspiracy abounds. Not just crazy Bigfoot/unicorn conspiracy, but cold and calculated planning, based on marketing models and business tactics used in companies more reputable than those trying to get you to buy the latest flavor of Snapple. Psychology is involved. Millions in research and focus groups is involved. Real scientists are involved.
All over a chip or a snack pack aimed at kids during lunchtime. So what’s the big deal?
A few notable selections from Moss’s text:
Regarding the head of General Mills, Stephen Sanger, under whose jurisdiction the company has spread and flourished — “Under his leadership, General Mills had overtaken not just the cereal aisle but other sections of the grocery store. The company’s Yoplait brand had transformed traditional unsweetened breakfast yogurt into a veritable dessert. It now had twice as much sugar per serving as General Mills’ marshmallow cereal Lucky Charms. And yet, because of yogurt’s well-tended image as a wholesome snack, sales of Yoplait were soaring, with annual revenue topping $500 million.”
A little more about sugar, specifically in popular tomato sauces — “…the food industry already knew some things about making people happy — and it started with sugar. Many of the Prego sauces — whether cheesy, chunky or light — have one feature in common: The largest ingredient, after tomatoes, is sugar. A mere half-cup of Prego Traditional, for instance, has the equivalent of more than two teaspoons of sugar, as much as two-plus Oreo cookies.”
Another astonishing fact is this: Americans like to snack, now more than ever, and the numbers are increasing by a third of a pound each year. At the time of writing, “the average intake of snacks like chips and cheese crackers pushing past 12 pounds a year.”
In regard to the many scientists and focus groups used to find the best combinations of flavors and the most marketable products, they know just what we’re looking for. Case in point: the author interviewed Steven Witherly, food scientist and author of “Why Humans Like Junk Food,” to identify the most desirable product from the consumer’s standpoint.
“I brought him two shopping bags filled with a variety of chips to taste. He zeroed right in on the Cheetos. ‘This,’ Witherly said, ‘is one of the most marvelously constructed foods on the planet, in terms of pure pleasure.’ He ticked off a dozen attributes of the Cheetos that make the brain say more. But the one he focused on most was the puff’s uncanny ability to melt in the mouth. ‘It’s called vanishing caloric density,’ Witherly said. ‘If something melts down quickly, your brain thinks that there’s no calories in it . . . you can just keep eating it forever.'”
As one reader comment mentioned on the website, this article doesn’t even address high fructose corn syrup, hydrolyzed corn/wheat/soy, lobbyists, MSG, or GMO products, yet it’s still enough to make a person swear off Doritos forever.
Unfortunately, our food system is unhealthy, sick, in need of repair. The damage done is immense and will require an equally immense amount of work to revise policies and procedures. One of the features of the article highlighted a conference of snack food superpowers – General Mills, Kraft, Nabisco, Nestle – meeting to find compromises on solutions for the national obesity epidemic. It’s certainly a step in the right direction, but is it all just too little too late?
Have you checked out the article yet? It’s long, but it’s certainly worth the time and effort to read. Check it out and get back to me on what you think — let me know, I’m always curious!