Manufacturing Obesity: A Look at “The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food”

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In the “The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food,”previewed in the latest edition of the New York Times Magazine and adapted from his forthcoming book “Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us,” Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Michael Moss traces the science and politics of how obesity continues to be manufactured by industry giants–one bag of Frito Lay chips at a time. Moss takes us “inside the hyper-engineered, savagely marketed, addiction-creating battle for American “‘stomach share’”– the amount of digestive space that any one company’s brand can grab from the competition.

“What I found, over four years of research and reporting”, explains Moss, “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.” He talked with more than 300 current or former employees of the processed-food industry, from scientists to marketers to C.E.O.’s.

Moss gives us an insider glimpse at one of those CEO meetings back in April, 1999, at the brink of the obesity epidemic.  On that day the 11 men who controlled America’s largest food companies, including Nestlé  Kraft and Nabisco, General Mills, Procter & Gamble and Coca-Cola met at the Minneapolis headquarters of Pillsbury to discuss America’s growing weight problem.  In the months leading up to the meeting,  James Behnke, a 55-year-old executive at Pillsbury “was engaged in conversation with a group of food-science experts who were painting an increasingly grim picture of the public’s ability to cope with the industry’s formulations — from the body’s fragile controls on overeating to the hidden power of some processed foods to make people feel hungrier still.”

It was time, [Behnke] and a handful of others felt, to warn the C.E.O.’s that their companies may have gone too far in creating and marketing products that posed the greatest health concerns.

It’s scary to think that some of the most talented scientists in our country are working on devising the perfect sugar-to-fat ratio for Doritos.

Howard Moskowitz, who studied mathematics and received a PhD in experimental psychology from Harvard is one of those experts– the Winston Wolf of junk food, per say, as Gizmodo so eloquently put it.  Everyone from Frito Lay to Dr. Pepper has hired Moskowitz to do one very important thing: find a product’s ‘bliss point’.

[The] food industry already knew some things about making people happy – and it started with sugar. Many of the Prego sauces – whether cheesy, chunky or light – have one feature in common: The largest ingredient, after tomatoes, is sugar. A mere half-cup of Prego Traditional…has the equivalent of more than two teaspoons of sugar, as much as two-plus Oreo cookies. It also delivers one-third of the sodium recommended for a majority of American adults for an entire day. In making these sauces, Campbell supplied the ingredients, including the salt, sugar and, for some versions, fat, while Moskowitz supplied the optimization. “More is not necessarily better,” Moskowitz wrote in his own account of the Prego project. “As the sensory intensity (say, of sweetness) increases, consumers first say that they like the product more, but eventually, with a middle level of sweetness, consumers like the product the most (this is their optimum, or bliss point).

In other words, we love sugars and salts, but to a point. And there are hundreds (if not thousands) of scientists whose entire job is to find that exact moment where processed foods are the most delicious—and addictive.

Think about that next time you’re enjoying your Yoplait yogurt or Burger King fries.

A convoluted mess of Big Money, Big Politics, and even Big Science has created the Big Snack business in this country. Moss’s insightful and detailed case studies make it clearer than ever that though the American people need a lot of things, they don’t need a coke.

Note: Moss’s new book “Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us” was released today in hardcover and e-book today.

About Charley Moore

Charley is the Publisher of Article 3, as well as Founder and CEO of Rocket Lawyer Incorporated. Prior to founding Rocket Lawyer, Charley advised early stage companies, large enterprises and their investors on strategic partnering and corporate development strategy. Charley has been at the forefront of Internet corporate development since beginning his career as an attorney at Venture Law Group in Menlo Park, California in 1996. He represented Yahoo! (IPO), WebTV Networks (acquired by Microsoft) and Cerent Corporation (acquired by Cisco Systems) at critical early stages of their success and was the founder of Onstation Corporation. Charley graduated from the United States Naval Academy (BS), San Francisco State University (MS) and the University of California at Berkeley (Juris Doctorate). He served as a U.S. Naval officer and is a Gulf War veteran.
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