Why We Can’t Eat Just One: The Science Behind Junk Food Addiction

It’s no accident that Americans are addicted to salty, crunchy chips and surgery soft drinks. Scientists and “crave experts” in the processed-food industry have been working for decades to make it so.

In the New York Times investigative piece The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food, Pulitzer-prize winning author Michael Moss exposes the way companies from Frito-Lay to Coke use chemistry and economic theory to make their products irresistible and addictive.

“What I found, over four years of research and reporting, was a conscious effort taking place in labs and marketing meetings and grocery store aisles to get people hooked on foods that are convenient and inexpensive,” writes Moss, who talked with some 300 current or former employees of the processed-food industry, from scientists to marketers to CEOs.

Moss goes inside the laboratories where the “bliss point” of sugary drinks and the “mouth feel” of fat are calculated. How do you reach the bliss point? When the flavor piques the taste buds enough to be alluring, but doesn’t have an overriding single flavor that tells the brain to stop eating or drinking. And mouth feel? One food scientist called Cheetos “one of the most marvelously constructed foods on the planet.” Cheetos have an uncanny ability to melt in the mouth, which food scientists deem “vanishing caloric density.”

“If something melts down quickly, your brain thinks that there are no calories in it … you can just keep eating forever,” the researcher said.

It’s no surprise to anyone that sugary, salty, fatty foods are not good for us in the amounts that we consume them. But the processed-food companies are loath to take the blame.

“Don’t talk to me about nutrition,” said the head of General Mills, whose Yoplait yogurt has twice as much sugar as its marshmallow cereal Lucky Charms. “Talk to me about taste, and if this stuff tastes better, don’t run around trying to sell stuff that doesn’t taste good.”

During the last 20 years, there has been a dramatic increase in obesity in the United States and rates remain high, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than one-third of U.S. adults (35.7%) and about 17% (or 12.5 million) of children and adolescents aged 2 to 19 years are obese.

Aimed at children, Kraft’s Lunchables take a bit hit in the piece. Geoffrey Bible, former CEO of Philip Morris (prior owner of Kraft Foods), said that, “If you take Lunchables apart, the most healthy item is the napkin.”

But one of the most striking revelations in the article is the scope of the junk food industry’s ambitions.

Todd Putman, who worked at Coca-Cola from 1997 to 2001, said the goal became much larger than merely beating the rival brands; Coca-Cola strove to outsell every other thing people drank, including milk and water. The marketing division’s efforts boiled down to one question, Putman said: “How can we drive more ounces into more bodies more often?”

There’s a lot more to digest in the article. Moss said in an interview of his own after the story was published that he was shocked at the number of executives who don’t eat their own foods.

There is still hope.

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