There is a growing body of evidence that supports what many of us have always thought – junk food is truly addictive. The more we eat, the more we want. Our brains crave junk food in much the same way as a drug addict craves drugs. And this is no accident. Junk food has been designed and marketed with one goal in mind – to get us to eat more of it!
Early last year, Michael Moss wrote a cover story for New York Times Magazine about the science behind junk food addiction and taste. He interviewed James Behnke, a top executive at Pillsbury, about his attempt during a 1999 meeting, to get the CEO’s at America’s largest food companies to look seriously at America’s growing obesity problem. Behnke discussed a pivotal moment of the meeting when Michael Mudd, a VP at Kraft, made an uncomfortable analogy. He compared the large food companies to the tobacco companies in the way they advertised harmful products to children. And he went on to claim “the toll taken on the public health by poor diet rivals that taken by tobacco.”
On this basis, Mudd presented a plan to address obesity and asked for the food industry to be part of the solution, but he was not successful. Since that meeting in 1999, obesity rates have continued to surge. Today, one in three adults and approximately one in six children are clinically obese.
Maybe it was naive to expect these tremendously successful food companies to make any changes that would alter their highly profitable brands. At the time of the meeting, General Mills was reaping over $500 million in annual revenue just from their line of Yoplait yogurts. These yogurts were marketed as a healthy food, but most flavors contained over 20 grams of sugar per 6 oz container (more than twice the sugar per serving as the marshmallow cereal Lucky Charms). And they had just launched Go-Gurt, the squeeze yogurt with 10 grams of sugar per tube (close to the 15 grams per sugar for the same serving size of most ice creams).
Sugar, Fat, Salt & Other Food Industry Tactics
Moss, a Pulitzer prize winning author, continued on to write “Salt, Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us”. After more than four years of research and over 300 interviews, he found that there was a “conscience effort – taking place in the labs and marketing meetings and grocery store aisles – to get people hooked on foods that are convenient and inexpensive.” The food industry uses sugar, salt and fat, to make processed foods addicting, as well as other scientific techniques to make sure that we keep eating.
Sugar: Sugar alone has been shown to be more addictive than cocaine. Food manufacturers use sophisticated taste science to determine the “bliss point” that makes us crave more.
Fat: The industry strives to find the best ‘mouth feel.’ That’s the feeling we get when we bite into a warm, gooey taste of cheese, or crispy fried chicken. The feeling rushes right to the same pleasure centers of the brain that sugar does.
Salt: Moss describes salt as “the miracle ingredient that solves all of the problems.” Salt provides a burst of flavor, but also acts as a preservative so that the food can last on the shelf for months. Salt also hides much of the off-notes in flavors that are common to processed foods.
Vanishing Calorie Density: Big food companies also look for this attribute when designing junk food. The term “vanishing calorie density” refers to the feeling we get when something melts quickly in our mouths. When this happens, our brains think that there aren’t any calories in it, and, as such, we can keep eating it forever. Cheetos are a perfect example of this type of food.
“Craveability”: The food industry aims for this goal, so they can be assured that we keep eating. Moss explains that foods with bold distinctive flavors can overwhelm our brains, which in turn, prevents us from over indulging on them. To combat this, food industry scientists strive to create “craveabliity” in a food. This is the exact balance between enticing our taste buds, but not overwhelming them, thereby overriding our brain’s natural tendency to say “stop”.
So – what are we to do? The key is to eat less processed and packaged junk food. Try to shop around the perimeters of the grocery store (think vegetables, fruits and meats) and stick to whole foods as much as possible. Snacking occasionally, and in small amounts is OK, but be aware that these foods are purposefully designed to be addictive. Understanding some of the science behind these packaged food may help us in resisting them. Remember the food industry’s goal is to make money, not to keep us healthy.