Hooking Americans on processed food

This bleak and fascinating New York Times magazine article on the science of addictive junk food is a must-read. It’s excerpted from Michael Moss’s forthcoming book, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. Moss describes the incredible efforts of junk-food manufacturers to maximize the addictive qualities of their products–from mouth feel to bliss point. One of the most fascinating things is how quantifiable all that is; companies hire food scientists, sure, but also statisticians and mathematicians to break down the data in remarkable and fine-grained ways and pin-point the exact formula that brings the greatest returns at the lowest price.

All of which is incredibly intriguing, but what I love about this article is that it doesn’t bemoan individual eating habits. There’s no hand-wringing over laziness and lack of willpower. And the last anecdote, which focuses on attempts to get people who already drink a lot of Coke to drink even more, makes crystal clear the relationship between processed food manufacturers and the poor:

In his capacity, Dunn was making frequent trips to Brazil, where the company had recently begun a push to increase consumption of Coke among the many Brazilians living in favelas. The company’s strategy was to repackage Coke into smaller, more affordable 6.7-ounce bottles, just 20 cents each. Coke was not alone in seeing Brazil as a potential boon; Nestlé began deploying battalions of women to travel poor neighborhoods, hawking American-style processed foods door to door. But Coke was Dunn’s concern, and on one trip, as he walked through one of the impoverished areas, he had an epiphany. “A voice in my head says, ‘These people need a lot of things, but they don’t need a Coke.’ I almost threw up.”

Moss demonstrates again and again how junk-food corporations rely on fat, salt and sugar to hook consumers, and convenience to make it difficult for over-worked Americans to choose less-processed options. And while we often use addiction as a metaphor for problems Americans face–workaholics, rageaholics, etc.–Moss makes it clear that in the case of junk food, the language of addiction is not simply a convenient metaphor.


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