Junk food is designed to be addictive, as New York Times reporter Michael Moss reveals in his forthcoming book, “Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us.” An excerpt offers more than you may want to know about how food manufacturers create their products with every bit as much care as a medieval alchemist seeking the magic elixir.
Companies carry out extensive testing to get just that right “mouthfeel.” Focus groups are key; one composed of harried working moms played a part in inspiring Lunchables, the plastic trays packed with processed foods whose packaging says it’s the perfect lunch solution for kids. Millions of dollars are spent on perfecting Cheeto-like creations with”vanish caloric density,” an industry term for the “uncanny ability” of the orange puffs to melt in the mouth and so quickly that your brain is tricked into thinking they have zero calories. If all else fails and a product doesn’t sell, the cardinal rule is: add more sugar.
Quoting from industry officials (including the CEO of General Mills, Stephen Sanger), Moss makes clear that their general philosophy/business plan is “consumers don’t want to hear about nutrition; if you make it taste good, they will buy, buy and buy.”
Is It Our Fault We Get Hooked on Junk Food?
With more than one-third of adults in America and about 17 percent of children obese, public health officials have not hesitated to connect obesity rates to the mountains of junk food they make and people consume.
But while some see a clear link, others counter that people have choices about what they choose to buy in stores and what they eat and feed their children. We’re constantly told that junk food is a one-way ticket to the full panoply of modern civilization’s health woes (diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease); stuffed with sugar, salt and all things processed; cleverly, temptingly packaged. If you eat fattening junk food and you gain weight, it’s your fault, some say.
Moss’s investigation suggests something more insidious, that the likes of General Mills and Frito Lay are going out of their way to create foods that consumers get hooked on. Interviews with scientists and executives who used to work for the food companies reveal them to be full of regret for bringing Lunchables, Doritos and the like into kitchen cabinets and potentially creating massive health problems.
The Real Fight Is Against Unhealthy Food
Talking about an “obesity epidemic” puts the blame on people for their health problems, Jill Filipovic writes in the Guardian. The real fight, she says, is against unhealthy food and, by extension, those who manufacturer it. Pointing fingers at those with unhealthy diets and lifestyles (as Barbara Walters did in a December interview with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie) achieves nothing.
Of course people make choices about what they eat, but when we look at issues such as access to healthy food, it becomes clear that not everyone has as much “choice” about their food as we might think. Filopovic argues that we need to make changes such as “humane work policies” so people end up with time to prepare and eat a real, healthy meal instead of snacks from a box.
Even more, healthy food must not only be more accessible but affordable, so that a 99 cents bag of crispy things isn’t the cheapest option. Moss’ research more than makes clear that Big Food does not have our best (health) interests in mind; accordingly we need to, as Filopovic writes, “push back against big food companies and question their outsized influence in Washington and in our daily lives.”
Do you think it’s an exaggeration to say that we can become as addicted to junk food as drugs? Should Big Food take some responsibility in creating a legion of health problems from diabetes to high blood pressure?
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