Are Food Manufacturers Worse Than Tobacco Companies?
Ever get the feeling there's a conspiracy brewing to get you to eat unhealthy foods? According to a comprehensive, and fairly disturbing, new report in New York Times Magazine, there is. The story, written by Michael Moss and adapted from the book Sugar, Salt, Fat: How the Food Industry Hooked Us, chronicles the multimillion-dollar-a-year research machine behind the science of making, marketing, and selling highly addictive foods and drinks to you and your children.
Here are a few of the most alarming anecdotes, quotes and takeaways from the 8,000-word behemoth.
"Stomach Share." This is the term food manufacturers use to describe the ongoing battle to get more of their products in your stomach.
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Epidemic Proportions. "More than half of American adults were now considered overweight, with nearly one-quarter of the adult population - 40 million people - clinically defined as obese. Among children, the 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.)" (Relaated: Can Americans shake weight-based stereotypes?)
Worse Than Big Tobacco? Moss quotes Yale University professor of psychology and public health, Kelly Brownell, who views processed food manufacturers as a public health menace: "As a culture, we've become upset by the tobacco companies advertising to children, but we sit idly by while the food companies do the very same thing. And we could make a claim that the toll taken on the public health by a poor diet rivals that taken by tobacco."
The Secret Sauce. Companies spend millions annually on test marketing and research to discover a product's "bliss point"-the optimal ingredient mix and packaging that will get consumers hooked on a new or existing product. They also test extensively with focus groups to pinpoint food and beverage qualities like "mouth feel," which gauges the human reaction to texture, taste, and composition while chewing or swallowing.
"Sensory-Specific Satiety." This refers to the tendency for big, distinct flavors to overwhelm the brain and depress the desire to consume more, says Moss. Playing on this, products like Coca-Cola and Doritos use complex taste compositions that don't have a distinct, overriding single flavor that tells the brain to stop eating.
Caloric Density is Vanishing. The perfect example, writes Moss, is the Cheeto. Moss interviewed food scientist and author Steven Witherly, who said, "(Cheetos) are the most marvelously constructed foods on the planet, in terms of pure pleasure." Witherly gave dozens of reasons why, but said the most tantalizing was "the puff's uncanny ability to melt in the mouth." He called it vanishing caloric density, and explained, "if something melts down quickly, your brain thinks that there's no calories in it . . . you can just keep eating it forever."
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Line Extension. If you are constantly noticing new versions of old favorites at the grocery or convenience store, there's a reason. Moss writes, "the food technicians stopped worrying about inventing new products and instead embraced the industry's most reliable method for getting consumers to buy more: the line extension. The classic Lay's potato chips were joined by Salt & Vinegar, Salt & Pepper, and Cheddar & Sour Cream. They put out Chili-Cheese-flavored Fritos, and Cheetos were transformed into 21 varieties.
Scientific Testing Ground. In its research complex near Dallas, Frito-Lay employed close to 500 chemists, psychologists, and technicians to conduct research that cost up to $30 million a year. The teams would focus on chip qualities like crunch, mouth feel, and aroma. One tool: a $40,000 device that simulated a chewing mouth to help determine the perfect breaking point for a chip. "People like a chip that snaps with about four pounds of pressure per square inch," writes Moss. (Read more on the science behing food cravings here.)
Healthier at a Cost. As consumers, particularly baby boomers, aged, they became more conscious of things like sodium and fat intake, but they kept snacking, says the report. Terms like "low fat" and "low sodium" became marketing revelations as munchers became less concerned with eating more of something. The packaging said it was better for consumers, but the real message was permission to eat more.
Potato Chips, the Perfect Food. This snack classic is still king, according to Eric Rimm, an associate professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. He told Moss that "the coating of salt, the fat content that rewards the brain with instant feelings of pleasure, the sugar that exists not as an additive but in the starch of the potato itself - all of this combines to make it the perfect addictive food."
The Lunchable Experiment. With bologna sales flagging in the 1980s, Oscar Mayer tabbed company vice president Bob Drane to reinvigorate the market for this lunchtime staple. His two-pronged approach involved making a solution that would help time-strapped moms get lunch ready in the mornings and make kids feel empowered about what they were eating and the packaging it came in. The result? Lunchables, a brand that ultimately took the form of 60 different varieties and maxed out its annual sales near the $1 billion mark at the brand's peak of popularity.
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