Salt, sugar, fat: The makers of processed foodstuffs are out to get us

Doritos Flamas 2

Photo by TheFoodJunk via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Following their custom of late, The New York Times website is already featuring the cover story from this coming Sunday’s Magazine. Titled “The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food,” Michael Moss’s extended piece is extracted from his forthcoming book, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. As both titles suggest, Moss — a Pulitzer-winning reporter — takes us behind the scenes of the industrial food complex to make all-too-clear what we already fear. For example, potato chips, Doritos, and Cheetos (to name but a few) are “addictive” by design. Not only are countless millions of dollars spent on marketing, but the extent to which sensory researchers, food scientists, and myriad other specialists are expertly crafting products that tap into the deepest animal parts of our brains is downright scary.

Moss’s Times piece describes how insights gleaned from studying military rations were applied to snack foods:

The military has long been in a peculiar bind when it comes to food: how to get soldiers to eat more rations when they are in the field. They know that over time, soldiers would gradually find their meals-ready-to-eat so boring that they would toss them away, half-eaten, and not get all the calories they needed. But what was causing this M.R.E.-fatigue was a mystery. “So I started asking soldiers how frequently they would like to eat this or that, trying to figure out which products they would find boring,” [food-industry consultant Howard] Moskowitz said. The answers he got were inconsistent. “They liked flavorful foods like turkey tetrazzini, but only at first; they quickly grew tired of them. On the other hand, mundane foods like white bread would never get them too excited, but they could eat lots and lots of it without feeling they’d had enough.” This contradiction is known as “sensory-specific satiety.” In lay terms, it is the tendency for big, distinct flavors to overwhelm the brain, which responds by depressing your desire to have more. Sensory-specific satiety also became a guiding principle for the processed-food industry. The biggest hits — be they Coca-Cola or Doritos — owe their success to complex formulas that pique the taste buds enough to be alluring but don’t have a distinct, overriding single flavor that tells the brain to stop eating.

Think “healthier” versions of these processed foods are better for us? Think again. As Moss writes,

The Frito-Lay executives also spoke of the company’s ongoing pursuit of a “designer sodium,” which they hoped, in the near future, would take their sodium loads down by 40 percent. No need to worry about lost sales there, the company’s C.E.O., Al Carey, assured their investors. [Health-conscious baby] boomers would see less salt as the green light to snack like never before.

There’s a paradox at work here. On the one hand, reduction of sodium in snack foods is commendable. On the other, these changes may well result in consumers eating more. “The big thing that will happen here is removing the barriers for boomers and giving them permission to snack,” Carey said. The prospects for lower-salt snacks were so amazing, he added, that the company had set its sights on using the designer salt to conquer the toughest market of all for snacks: schools. He cited, for example, the school-food initiative championed by Bill Clinton and the American Heart Association, which is seeking to improve the nutrition of school food by limiting its load of salt, sugar and fat. “Imagine this,” Carey said. “A potato chip that tastes great and qualifies for the Clinton-A.H.A. alliance for schools . . . . We think we have ways to do all of this on a potato chip, and imagine getting that product into schools, where children can have this product and grow up with it and feel good about eating it.”


I highly recommend the full piece, which you can find here. Based on the NYT excerpt, I’m really looking forward to the book. It comes out next Tuesday, February 26, and is already garnering high praise. Publishers Weekly, for example, says “Moss’s vivid reportage remains alive to the pleasures of junk [foods] … while shrewdly analyzing the manipulative profiteering behind them. The result is a mouth-watering, gut-wrenching look at the food we hate to love.”

For one more preview, check out this piece at Amazon. The folks at Random House, the publisher of Salt Sugar Fat, have put together a compelling video of Moss scrutinizing America’s enormous (and sometimes unwitting) appetite for cheese.


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