The Science of Addictive Junk Food

A couple of weeks ago the New York Times published an article called “The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food.”  The article was written by Michael Moss, adapted from the book “Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us.”

The original article is over 9,500 words long and took me over half an hour to read. Moss’ report exposes the food manufacturing industry’s own view on their responsibility in the US obesity epidemic and how they consider the consumer (yep, that’s us!) to be fickle and stupid.  Though this article is written about companies based in the US, we can be certain that the same mentality is shared here in Australia and that many of the same foods are being exported here and advertised towards all of us. It’s a great article and very insightful, worth the read if you have the chance and if not, we’ve summarised the best bits here:

The article begins with a scene from 1999, over 14 years ago. A meeting was held with 11 men who controlled America’s largest food companies. Some of the CEOs in attendance were:

  • Nestlé
  • Kraft Nabisco
  • General Mills
  • Procter & Gamble
  • Coca-Cola
  • Mars
  • Pillsbury

The meeting was called for by the chief technical officer at Pillsbury to address the food companies’ role in America’s obesity epidemic. He called the meeting to address the public issue that sugary, salty, fatty foods are not good for us in the quantities that we consume them.

The meeting started with a presentation from a vice president of Kraft named Michael Mudd. He presented some astounding facts and figures relating to America’s obesity epidemic; “Among children, the obesity rates had more than doubled since 1980, and the number of kids considered obese had shot past 12 million. (This was still only 1999; the nation’s obesity rates would climb much higher.)”

After 114 slides on the topic, he concluded with the suggestion that they should reduce their use of salt, sugar and fat, perhaps by imposing industry wide limits. He also suggested that it wasn’t as simple as this, but they needed to address the way they advertise and market their products: Mudd proposed creating a “code to guide the nutritional aspects of food marketing, especially to children.”

Sadly the response Mudd received from the audience of CEOs and industry leaders what not as positive and receptive as he had hoped. The obvious issues were dismissed, their responsibility for the problem was denied and Mudd’s proposals were disregarded. These leaders put their own profits over the health of their country and carried on their pursuit to make us consume more of their products, more often.

The article continues by highlighting four case studies which reflect the food manufacturers role in the industry, their attitudes and in my  pinion, their complete lack of respect for their customers and the general public.  They shed light on how 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.

  1.  Processed food is made in labs, not kitchens

This case study outlines the work of a “food-industry legend” named Howard Moskowitz. He’s not a chef or a cook, nor a farmer, but a scientist whose role is to optimise food products to find the most perfect version of a product. He works in a lab with computers, not in a kitchen with real food. He asks consumers to sample products to collect mountains of data which is then mathematically analysed to determine which version of the product will be most irresistible to the consumer.

One of his key findings was commonly: More sugar = More appealing.

So what did he encourage the food industry to do? Add more sugar. To everything. Even traditionally savoury products like tomato pasta sauce.

One of the projects Moskowitz was contracted to work on was developing a new Dr Pepper flavour that would rival Coca-cola. After months of sampling and assessing data he presented a 135 page report for the soft drink giant. One of his findings related to the key ingredient, the sugary Dr Pepper syrup. He found that consumers didn’t notice the difference in taste when they reduced the amount of syrup from 2 millilitres to 1.69millilitres, which doesn’t seem like a big difference, but for the company’s profits it adds up to millions of dollars.

Our Message: Processed food products are often engineered to be irresistible and addictive. Large food processing companies often hold their own profits before the quality of their products. The best solution is to avoid processed foods where possible.


  2.      Lunchables

The second case study follows the story of how the American food company ‘Oscar Mayer’ developed the lunchtime product “Lunchables.”  The product was the invention of Bob Drane and was created as a product that was cheap, had a long shelf life, required no preparation before eating it and was targeted towards children.


The most astounding part of this case study is right at the end, when the interviewer speaks to Bob Drane’s own daughter, Monica Drane. She had 3 children of her own at the time of the interview, aged 10, 14, and 17 and admits that her children have never eaten a Lunchable product in their lives because “we eat very healthfully.”

Our Message: Food manufacturers are happy to create these products for the public and have made hundreds of millions of dollars from their success, but they wouldn’t feed them to their own families.


3.  Added salt: How snack foods have begun to replace meals

This case study begins with a story from Finland, where in the late 1970s Finns were consuming dangerously large amounts of salt. So the Finnish authorities went straight to the food manufacturers and introduced a label warning “High Salt Content” and it worked by reducing salt consumption by a third and dropping the country’s risk of heart disease or stroke by up to 80%.

The story continues with a team of scientists who found that people could beat their salt habits simply by refraining from salty foods long enough for their taste buds to return to a normal level of sensitivity. This research really highlights the additive nature of junk food, where the more you eat salty foods, the more you want them.

Later in this case study findings are discussed which show that “eating real meals had become a thing of the past. Baby boomers, especially, seemed to have greatly cut down on regular meals. They were skipping breakfast when they had early-morning meetings. They skipped lunch when they then needed to catch up on work because of those meetings. They skipped dinner when their kids stayed out late or grew up and moved out of the house. And when they skipped these meals, they replaced them with snacks.” And the food manufacturer’s response to these findings: “This is a category that has huge growth potential.”

This case study concludes: “If Americans snacked only occasionally, and in small amounts, this would not present the enormous problem that it does. But because so much money and effort has been invested over decades in engineering and then relentlessly selling these products, the effects are seemingly impossible to unwind.”

Our Message: If we're more aware of what's in our food, we can make better choices. Correct food labelling plays a significant role in our health choices. And now I can hear my own parent’s voice as I type this advice: “Focus on teaching your family the importance of meal times.” This might be an old fashioned, traditional message but it’s good to be reminded of what the consequences of skipping meals might be.


4.   Coke

Personally I find it very difficult to discuss Coke and soft drinks without getting into a crazy rant. For me, soft drinks are a waste of time and money. They are nutritionally empty, damaging to our health, instead of quenching your thirst and hydrating us many are filled with caffeine which is a diuretic to dehydrate us even further. Coke is often cheaper to produce than bottled water but we pay more for it. Soft drinks are full of sugar and chemicals or even worse, the diet versions are full of chemicals and more chemicals. Ok I warned you, that was a short rant.


My favourite exert from this case study which I believe shows the lack of respect from Coke of their customers:

In Coke’s headquarters in Atlanta, the biggest consumers were referred to as “heavy users.” “The other model we use was called ‘drinks and drinkers,’ ” Dunn said. “How many drinkers do I have? And how many drinks do they drink? If you lost one of those heavy users, if somebody just decided to stop drinking Coke, how many drinkers would you have to get, at low velocity, to make up for that heavy user? The answer is a lot. It’s more efficient to get my existing users to drink more.”

And it gets worse, Coke’s marketing division’s efforts focus on one question: “How can we drive more litres into more bodies more often?”

Worldwide, there are 1.7 billion (17,000,000,000 woah!) serves of Coke sold every day. Source: Coca-cola UK.