Why You're Addicted To Junk Food



It’s far from an acci­dent that you’re addicted to chips —or soda or pre-made lunch packs or prob­a­bly any other processed-food you can think of, explains a very un-sugar-coated New York Times Mag­a­zine inves­tiga­tive  piece set to hit stands this weekend.

In “The Extra­or­di­nary Sci­ence of Addic­tive Junk Food,” pre­viewed online now and adapted from his forth­com­ing book “Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us,” Pulitzer Prize win­ning reporter Michael Moss delves deep into the long his­tory of how snack food and bev­er­age mak­ers scheme with a mix of sci­ence, will­ful igno­rance, and mas­ter­ful mar­ket­ing to sell moun­tains of their salty, sug­ary products.

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, adding that he talked with more than 300 cur­rent or for­mer employ­ees of the processed-food indus­try, “from sci­en­tists to mar­keters to C.E.O.’s.”

Among the high-blood-pressure induc­ing rev­e­la­tions in Moss’s 14-page online story, pre­sented in a series of case stud­ies, are:

•Kraft Lunch­ables pre-packed lunches, loaded with sugar and sodium, and bring­ing in nearly $1 bil­lion for Oscar Meyer over the years, were finan­cially backed by Philip Mor­ris when they were cre­ated and mar­keted to har­ried moms in the 1980s. Though they’ve been crit­i­cized for being unhealthy to chil­dren, “Well, that’s what the con­sumer wants, and we’re not putting a gun to their head to eat it,” admits Geof­frey Bible, for­mer CEO of Philip Mor­ris. “That’s what they want. If we give them less, they’ll buy less, and the com­peti­tor will get our mar­ket. So you’re sort of trapped.”

•Mon­ica Drane, daugh­ter of Lunch­ables cre­ator Bob Drane (who was tapped by Oscar Meyer in the 1980s) and a mother of three kids ages 10, 14 and 17, is not a con­sumer of the prod­uct. “I don’t think my kids have ever eaten a Lunch­able,” she says. “They know they exist and that Grandpa Bob invented them. But we eat very healthfully.”

•The early Lunch­ables cam­paign tar­geted moth­ers, who might have been too busy to make a lunch, “but they loved their kids enough to offer them this prepack­aged gift.” But a new mar­ket­ing strat­egy in 1999 said, essen­tially, that kids are in charge of lunches, not par­ents. “All day, you gotta do what they say,” said the ads, shown dur­ing Saturday-morning car­toon time. “But lunchtime is all yours.”

•After the late ’80s, when Frito-Lay—the nearly $3-billion-a-year man­u­fac­turer of Lay’s, Dori­tos, Chee­tos and Fritos—took a finan­cial hit because of reports that salty snacks led to car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­ease, researchers went into over­drive to churn out new, addic­tive hits. In their Dal­las com­plex, “nearly 500 chemists, psy­chol­o­gists and tech­ni­cians con­ducted research that cost up to $30 mil­lion a year, and the sci­ence corps focused intense amounts of resources on ques­tions of crunch, mouth feel and aroma for each of these items,” Moss writes. “Their tools included a $40,000 device that sim­u­lated a chew­ing mouth to test and per­fect the chips, dis­cov­er­ing things like the per­fect break point: peo­ple like a chip that snaps with about four pounds of pres­sure per square inch.”

•One of the most genius Frito-Lay prod­ucts, accord­ing to food sci­en­tist Steven With­erly, is the puffed Cheeto. That’s because of its beloved abil­ity to melt in one’s mouth. “It’s called van­ish­ing caloric den­sity,” With­erly told Moss. “If some­thing melts down quickly, your brain thinks that there’s no calo­ries in it … you can just keep eat­ing it forever.”

•Robert I-San Lin, chief sci­en­tist for Frito-Lay from 1974 to 1982, told Moss he tried in vain to get the com­pany to make its prod­ucts health­ier dur­ing his tenure, and regrets how much time the com­pany has spent try­ing to sell its snack foods to the pub­lic. “In his view,” Moss wrote, “three decades had been lost, time that he and a lot of other smart sci­en­tists could have spent search­ing for ways to ease the addic­tion to salt, sugar and fat.” He added, “I couldn’t do much about it. I feel so sorry for the public.”

•Coca-Cola, under fire from anti-obesity cam­paigns and other health ini­tia­tives in the late ’90s, began aggres­sively mar­ket­ing its sug­ary drink to poor, vul­ner­a­ble areas, Moss writes, “like New Orleans — where peo­ple were drink­ing twice as much Coke as the national aver­age — or Rome, Ga., where the per capita intake was nearly three Cokes a day.”

•Coke also tar­geted Brazil and its ultra-poor fave­las, by repack­ag­ing the soft drink into smaller, more afford­able bot­tles. On one trip to Brazil, Jef­frey Dunn, then-president and chief oper­at­ing offi­cer in both North and South Amer­ica, had a real­iza­tion, he told Moss. “A voice in my head says, ‘These peo­ple need a lot of things, but they don’t need a Coke.’ I almost threw up.” He tried steer­ing the com­pany in a more health-conscious direc­tion, but was fired. In recent years, Dunn’s worked to mar­ket car­rots as a snack. “I’m pay­ing my karmic debt,” he explained.



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