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The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food -- New York Times

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"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. What follows is a series of small case studies of a handful of characters whose work then, and perspective now, sheds light on how the foods are created and sold to people who, while not powerless, are extremely vulnerable to the intensity of these companies’ industrial formulations and selling campaigns."

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  1. Reading that article this will probably mean that I'll be late for work this morning, but it was indeed fascinating. I can't say it's "eyeopening", per se, as the "profit before people" corporate approach is nothing new, but the whole thing just seems so dirty. My favorite quote: "The selling of food matters as much as the food itself."

    Sad thing is, while I almost never eat any of the products mentioned in the piece, I could go for a Dorito about now.

    1 Reply
    1. re: MGZ

      It's sad that we are so cynical but I agree.

      I'm not shocked, SHOCKED, that the profit motive was so baldly expressed as more important than people's health (probably there were similar conversations in the tobacco companies at one point) but still.

      A very nice piece of work and worth reading.

    2. On the evening of April 8, 1999, a long line of Town Cars and taxis pulled up to the Minneapolis headquarters of Pillsbury and discharged 11 men who controlled America’s largest food companies. Nestlé was in attendance, as were Kraft and Nabisco, General Mills and Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola and Mars. Rivals any other day, the C.E.O.’s and company presidents had come together for a rare, private meeting. On the agenda was one item: the emerging obesity epidemic and how to deal with it. While the atmosphere was cordial, the men assembled were hardly friends. Their stature was defined by their skill in fighting one another for what they called “stomach share” — the amount of digestive space that any one company’s brand can grab from the competition.
      This alone reads like a Hollywood script for the next comic book feature film. All we need is a title.

      maria, I sent the article to my young scientist son, thanks.

      2 Replies
      1. re: HillJ


        A pretty substantial case was made by David Kessler, the former head of the FDA on the constituent components of the prepared foods in the USA.

        1. re: Phaedrus

          Focusing on the over eating aspect of that book (which I have read) was pretty powerful. My eating habits have changed considerably as I've gotten older and to the benefit of the children I raised. But we all deal with the powerful hold advertising & marketing (especially to the young) has on us.

      2. What a great article! My favorite quote: "When in doubt, add sugar." That is the crux of the problem, in my view.

        3 Replies
        1. re: GH1618

          Heck yes...even POTATO salad has sugar added to it in most places now...YUCKO! It's really disgusting. Most cornbread tastes like corn cake too. Just make your own foods! GAH!

          1. re: Val

            To be fair, my paternal great grandmother's potato salad recipe called for sugar. My mother, on the other hand, would die before she'd add sugar to potato salad. There are various salad recipes that call for sugar with no particularly malicious intent.

            1. re: StrandedYankee

              I hear you Stranded, but I was mostly referring to supermarket potato salad...where there's too much goo to begin with, you know? No offense to your great grammy!

        2. I thought this was a good one, too. It's really, really disturbing and awful.

          1. It's a long article but worth reading. I don't think there's anything eye-opening in it, though. I would have guessed the CEOs/heads of those corporations would have an idea that their products are contributing to the obesity problem. Anyone who has eaten cheetos has realized how addictive they can be, although I had no idea why. I'm generally pretty good about self-control but I can easily eat a bag of those!

            1. I can't see anyone being surprised by this. To corporations, we are not people but consumers. They care about how much money we give them, not about us. They might sometimes be capable of a certain degree of enlightened self-interest, but it's not their natural way of being.

              12 Replies
              1. re: StrandedYankee

                Consider the next generation coming up, StrandedY. Life is full of surprises, disappointments and realities. Remember...when we didn't know better. This may read like old news to some of us, but see the message through the eyes of someone just beginning to take responsibility for their own meals, food budget and health. I didn't feel like a consumer until I paid my first tax bill.

                1. re: HillJ

                  *Sigh* Hill, you are right. Sometimes I forget that I wasn't born middle aged and cynical. Though for what it's worth, I can't imagine the 15-year-old me having been surprised by this either. At ten, I would have been shocked, maybe even at thirteen...but not by my mid-teens. Parents really need to start emphasizing the virtues of cynicism and critical thinking to their kids far more than they do...

                  1. re: StrandedYankee

                    Not all parents hover with rose colored specks...but my observation regarding insightful news and news worth taking in is this: there's so much news, a good deal of conflicting intel and misnomer printed as science...you need to follow the money to understand the science. Eventually, it makes cynics of us all :)

                    1. re: HillJ

                      You know, I don't understand people who talk about cynicism like it's a bad thing. Cynicism is a lot like water...yeah, too much of it and you'll drown but the lack thereof is certainly no better. The greatest tip I can give for happiness? Be cynical, but not TOO cynical.

                      1. re: StrandedYankee

                        Well put, StrandedYankee, well put. I sorta feel the same way about ignorance - a bit is healthy indeed.

                        1. re: MGZ

                          Sure, I can understand that way of thinking and I'd apply my same response to ignorance as I would to cynicism. Give the young bloods a chance to develop these ideas on their own time.

                          1. re: HillJ

                            Guess what I'm sayin' is, in some ways I wish I knew less than I do now. On the other hand, "I wish I knew what I know now, when I was younger."

                            1. re: MGZ

                              Most of us will. But time & experience is what gets us there.

                              1. re: MGZ

                                How about "I wish I didn't know what I know, but if I have to know it, I wish I'd known it back when it would have done me some real good"?

                          2. re: StrandedYankee

                            Didn't mean to imply its a bad thing at all. Cynicism in healthy amounts that you come to on your own with time and experience, sure. However, there is nothing sadder to me anyway than a cynic who loves to burst a young mind. I could point to family, teachers, employers who delight in drowning dreams and innovation in the name of sage advice. I suppose raising young adults makes me sensitive to this attitude but even as a creative young person myself there were far too many cynics in the room.

                            1. re: HillJ

                              Oh, Hill, I didn't mean that YOU were saying cynicism is a bad thing! I saw that you got what I was saying. I really do think that cynicism is a lot like salt & spice. You definitely want some, but too much can ruin your dish. Or your personality! I meant when people in general talk about cynicism like it's a bad thing, not you.

                              1. re: StrandedYankee

                                Oh StrandedY, I wasn't taking your comment personally. I was also making a general observation based on some vivid memories.

                                I've had four diff careers in some aspect of the food biz. Two of my four children are pursuing food based careers. We have extraordinary discussions and hot debates! Nothing I've encountered on CH even comes close to the discussions I've had in my professional life.

                                So thank you for taking some time to discuss this thread together.

                  2. What I find surprising was the degree of premeditation to design products with addictive qualities.

                    A precise strategy to excite the reward circuitry of the brain was designed into foods, to incite cravings and addiction, and to fuel additional product purchases.

                    Quite akin to the measured nicotine delivery of cigarettes, in keeping with the cigarettes metaphor already used.

                    3 Replies
                    1. re: maria lorraine

                      Here is an idea I've been kicking around for a while.

                      The government should take over the food delivery system. Every man, woman and child gets a daily ration of kibble designed to maintain proper body weight and health.

                      Pox on the "yummy sammies" the "ahhh mazing local and sustainable whatever" etc. etc.

                      1. re: kengk

                        Is that you, Mayor Bloomberg?

                        1. re: 4X4

                          LOL. Please don't give Mr. Bloomberg any more ideas! :)

                    2. I was in food sales for about twenty years, and noticed about half way through my career certain new phrases, or should I say buzz words, popping up by the manufacturers reps at our sales meetings. "Mouth feel" and "flavor profile" were just two of the more common. Some other salesmen jumped on that bandwagon, especially the ones that did school sales and nursing homes, but to me I felt like it wasn't all about the food itself anymore.

                      7 Replies
                      1. re: coll

                        coll, I have no doubt that food sales exposure and experience placed you in a great deal of ah ha moments about how food is sold to consumers.

                        1. re: HillJ

                          Yeah, you should see me in the supermarket; I learned the useful stuff from my customers (like pricing and nitpicking), and the BS/inside stuff to ignore from the manufacturers; a dangerous combination. Also knowing what company just bought what brand was great information to have, you'd know which way it would go (usually down).

                          1. re: coll

                            You were fortunate to have such insider information; job perks!

                            1. re: HillJ

                              And I took full advantage, picked all my buyers' brains. They loved to share, whether it was meat, canned goods or produce. It was great while it lasted!

                              1. re: coll

                                Ah the buyers...that's where the real intel lies! Good for you.

                                1. re: HillJ

                                  I try to share here what I know whenever anything pertinant comes up, I believe in pay it forward! I have a lot of brain cells (what's left of them) dedicated to this stuff.

                                  1. re: coll

                                    Oh I know you do! Wealth of information.

                      2. I had mixed responses to the article. The implication that the junk food industries are deliberately creating food solely to get customers hooked on them and thus turn them into regular and compliant consumers - similar to adding nicotine to tobacco - is disturbing.

                        But while we don't have a natural craving for tobacco, the cravings for the certain flavors and texture is really nothing new and is part of the body chemistry. The craving for sweet flavors, for example, is as old as time. I have old cookbooks dating to the 1920s and the 19th century and there's quite a lot of sugary recipes even for savory dishes and the sugar content in many of the baked goods would do these modern companies quite proud. When my grandparents were children in the 1920s their favorite snack was a slice of bread slathered with preserves, and preserves is nothing but sugared fruit.

                        The article is only telling half the story. The other half of the story is that people are much more sedentary these days. A 19th century farmer or worker could sprinkle a quarter cup of brown sugar on his oatmeal everyday, and eat huge breakfasts of greasy sausages, pancakes sopped in syrup and fruit pies because they later spent the day in hard physical labor. Today's worker sits at a desk all day staring at a computer.

                        I once came across an article in one of the British newspapers that pointed out the average calorie intake has declined since the 1970s and Britons were eating less fat as well, but the obesity rate was still increasing solely because people were becoming more sedentary.

                        19 Replies
                        1. re: Roland Parker

                          I don't think anyone argues that lifestyle plays a role in how we manage high caloric foods and there is plenty of evidence to point to but this article and many more like it push back at the industry that today is much, much smarter. Sure, not all of us are plowing the fields but the modern age we're living in includes healthy activity...not to mention health clubs, swimming pools, yoga, aerobics and weight training. Taking up cycling, running, jogging and generally healthier alternatives.

                          The idea that some companies are using good science to trigger what makes us eat salt, sugar, fat in addictive amounts is no different than how tobacco companies included addictive ingredients to their brand of smokes. Rather than using smart science to help consumers, get people hooked on foods that are convenient and inexpensive. (as the article stated).

                          We can shrug off that much of this is not new, but calling companies out on such practices should never stop. Without some level of watchdogging would you trust your food manufacturer?

                          1. re: Roland Parker

                            The use of sugar as a staple is certainly not "as old as time." Fructose has always been available in fruits, but in its natural form the quatity is li ited and accompanied by a large amount of fiber. Sugar cane has been known and used for a few thousand years, but large scale production on plantations dates from the beginning of the colonial era. Even then, sugar was mainly used for desserts and other treats, not as a staple ingredient of meals until the 20th century, approximately.

                            The invention of beverages with no nutrient content other than sugar is the event that really marks the beginning of gross overconsumption of sugar. Ketchup is likewise an old condiment, but the ubiquitous bottle of sweetened tomato sauce is a modern phenomenon. Then comes sweetened peanut butter, sweetened dry cereals, and so forth.

                            The phenomenon got a real kick in the pants with the invention of high-fructose corn syrup, which is just an extremely cheap version of sugar, only a few decades ago. This allowed food producers to up the sugar content at will at almost no cost in order to compete in the sweetness sweepstakes.

                            Lack of physical exercize does not explain the obesity epidemic. The problem is mainly sugar, and especially fructose. You need to listen to Dr. Lustig's lecture: "Sugar — The Bitter Truth" a couple times through, carefully, then rethink your views on this. Unless you can rebut his thesis with equivalent research, you are just theorizing off the top of your head, I think.

                            1. re: GH1618

                              A minor correction: Heinz ketchup (1876) predates Coca-Cola (1886). HFCS was developed in the 1970s.

                              1. re: GH1618

                                At least the original Coca-Cola had cocaine in it. Addictive, yes, but also quite an appetite diminisher.

                              2. re: GH1618

                                What are your thoughts on companies' "calculated trifecta" of sugar, salt and fat, and the brain imaging results of the addiction centers of the brain after consuming the trifecta?

                                1. re: maria lorraine

                                  I just subscribe to Dr. Lustig's thesis. He's not particularly interested in fat, but he argues that salt in colas makes you thirsty, hence want to drink more cola. The problem is that you need to drink unsalted water to reduce your thirst, because the point is to bring the electrolytes into balance.

                                  Fructose, which is one-half of table sugar and a little more (usually) than half of HFCS, is the thing that stimulates the addiction response.

                                  1. re: GH1618

                                    The addiction comes from the cumulative and intense "reward center" stimulation of all three of the trifecta components, not just fructose or sugar, or so the scientists say.

                                    Makes sense, as activating more than one pleasurable sensory stimulus (more than sweet alone) would have a greater effect on the brain.

                                    1. re: maria lorraine

                                      "the scientists"? Who, and where, please?

                                      1. re: GH1618

                                        Mentioned in the NYT article, in Kessler's book, in the medical studies, and in the book "Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us" by Michael Moss.

                                        1. re: maria lorraine

                                          OK, the theory puts forward the "food-pleasure equation," and it's by Steven A. Witherly, a scientist with Nestle. I don't know what the basis for it is, or how many scientists subscribe to it, but there's no argument that people like fatty foods. Everything is better with butter. But Lustig holds, and I agree, that fructose is the poison, not fat. There is no fat in ketchup or cola. These products are harmful with or without fat

                                          1. re: GH1618

                                            Moss and Kessler go beyond the effect of sugar alone and discuss the cumulative and synergistic effect of fat, salt and sugar together (the "calculated trifecta" used in manufacturing) used to create "addictive potential" in the brain's circuitry.

                                            Lustig is interesting but his emphasis is only on sugar. Moss (New York Times investigative journalist) and Kessler (MD, attorney, former head of the FDA) discuss the chronic over-activation of the brain's circuitry from consuming foods with high levels of fat AND salt AND sugar -- an excitatory pattern that leads to addiction. See Moss and Kessler for the scientists who did the medical studies. NIH has some links to studies also.

                                            1. re: maria lorraine

                                              I see, but they need not only to discuss it, but to give the detailed science to support it.

                                              1. re: GH1618

                                                Extensively researched, both books. Just looked through Kessler's extensive endnotes with the medical studies. Moss has fairly extensive endnotes as well, though I haven't read all of them.

                                          2. re: maria lorraine

                                            "Emulsion pleasure theory" is more specifically about fat enhancing the pleasure associated with salt and/or sugar. I think "hypothesis" is better than "theory" here, but either way it says that people love ice cream. I knew that.

                                            I've drastically cut down my ice cream consumption, because of the sugar, not the fat. I still fry my eggs in butter. Fat is essential in the diet. Fructose is not.

                                            So far, the "emulsion pleasure theory" seems like a lot of handwaving to me — I'd like to see the biochemistry explained and I haven't found it yet. But I will stipulate that people love ice cream and should eat much less of it.

                                            1. re: GH1618

                                              Both the "food pleasure equation" and emulision theory that you mention are from Steven Witherly, and he's good, but he comes at the addictive nature of junk food from his experience/training in product development, manufacturing, nutrition and psychology.

                                              You will find more of the biochemistry by reading Kessler and Moss. Kessler, a physician, approaches the subject from a biochemistry and neuroscience angle, and he reports extensively on the medical studies. Moss reports on both fronts.

                                  2. re: GH1618

                                    Sugar in whatever form was certainly rarer in the "olden days" but sweet food was still craved by people. Honey was highly prized, for example and the medieval recipes featuring honey are, by our standards, sickly sweet. People even drank fermented honey.

                                    Then let's not forget the very common cheap sugars of the 18th and 19th centuries - sorghum, molasses, treacle and golden syrup. Many people, especially poorer people, lived off sorghum and molasses poured over just about anything. Maple syrup was common in the northern parts of the United States and Canada. Brown sugar was sniffed at by more affluent people because it was cheap and commonplace.

                                    I may not be a scientist but I was a history and literature major in college with a particular focus on the 18th and 19th century and it's very obvious from the books, newspapers and cookbooks from the time period that people have loved sugar for quite a few hundred years now.

                                    1. re: Roland Parker

                                      Oh, they loved it, all right. They just didn't eat so much of it.

                                    2. re: GH1618

                                      We may be turning the corner -- calorie intake dropping, though we need to pay attention to the calorie-burning (exercise) side of the equation. http://healthland.time.com/2013/02/22...

                                      IMHO, Lustig is a crusader and like all crusaders should be taken with a pinch of salt (or if that's unhealthy, at least a pinch of skepticism),

                                      1. re: drongo

                                        It's fair to call him a crusader, but he has scientific credentials and he's not selling anything. Those set him apart from other weight-loss crusaders for me.

                                        I've been aggressively cutting added sugar from my diet, and my wife's, and it's working for us.

                                  3. This was a very interesting article and I hope that this gets more attention. I have more thoughts on the article at my blog: http://ramblingsandgamblings.blogspot...
                                    but I'm mentioning specific ones here that I would like to discuss on CH.

                                    "He drew a connection to the last thing in the world the C.E.O.’s wanted linked to their products: cigarettes."

                                    I thought this was very interesting. But to me, it also adds a new question. Is it the food making part of the company that's at fault for making such unhealthy things or is it the advertising part that's at fault for selling them? At least with tobacco there's no delusion of a life-sustaining product whereas food is sustenance, no matter how much of it is chemically created.

                                    " “Don’t talk to me about nutrition,” he reportedly said, taking on the voice of the typical consumer. “Talk to me about taste, and if this stuff tastes better, don’t run around trying to sell stuff that doesn’t taste good.” "

                                    But that's the crux of the problem. Does this stuff actually "taste" good? Or does it just make you feel good? There's a distinct difference but the food companies would have you believe it's the same. By focusing on making things addictive, what they're doing is making you feel good. For something to taste good, you need to be able to discern tastes, and I'm not sure the target demographic is very good at that.

                                    "Imagine this...A potato chip that tastes great and qualifies for the Clinton-A.H.A. alliance for schools"

                                    This is another part of the problem. When we do have regulations and guidelines, a huge amount of money is spent trying to backdoor an existing product into qualifying, as opposed to creating new, better products. The most well known example being the "ketchup is a vegetable" controversy.

                                    "Coca-Cola strove to outsell every other thing people drank, including milk and water."

                                    That's just downright scary.

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: fooder

                                      The GREED expressed in that Coca Cola statement alone is audacious...how very very sad.

                                    2. What I found most interesting was the execs/scientists who now regret their work. I wonder how many defence / weapons researchers have regrets. I guess in the case of junk food and obesity the results are all around us daily.
                                      I can't blame publicly traded companies for trying to expand market share. It's the system they exist in that I blame. I'm not thrilled with Coke's strategy to expand with low calorie drinks because of the environmental issues with bottled water etc.

                                      1 Reply
                                      1. re: julesrules

                                        If it can be proven (emphasis on "if") that manufacturers
                                        manipulated product ingredients with *intent* and forethought to excite the neurocircuitry of the brain to addiction, there is potential liability. The regret may be a dread of a lawsuit, public/media scrutiny, and losing money.