Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us

an article from 

What follows is my interpretation of an adaptation of a new book called, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. The adaptation was recently published in The New York Times Magazine, in an article entitled, The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food. It tells an intricate tale of how food companies have been using food science to do the obvious — Sell. More. Food.

That’s what food corporations are supposed to do.

One of the reasons I talk about how food is marketed to us by giant corporations is that I hope to lift the veil just a bit, and that by doing so the marketing will lose some of its potency. The next time you see a fast food commercial (or soda, or food-in-a-box, or Monsanto, or fill in the __blank__), perhaps you will immediately go into deconstruction mode.

What are they really doing with this ad? How are they trying to make me feel? How are they hoping to influence me? What are they leaving out? Everything in a commercial advertisement is planned, staged, story-boarded, and executed to benefit the advertiser…not you.

Advertising is legalized lying.
– H.G. Wells

Skepticism does not bestow upon any of us a blanket of immunity, but it helps us to think more clearly. However, as the prey evolve to become faster and smarter, so do the predators adjust to survive.

The aim of marketing is to know and understand the customer so well the product or service fits him and sells itself.
— Peter Drucker

I would like to believe that the same skepticism can be aroused about the food industry, through learning more about their practices. Know this, friends: the food industry hires scientists who they pay to create addictive foods. It may sound unethical, but they don’t even hide this fact. It is imperative to stay ahead, to the extent that we can.

I talked about this in Latest in Paleo, Episode 42: Counterfeit Food. And, in this segment of 60 Minutes, you can watch scientists straightforwardly admit their motivation to addict you to their flavorings and to cause you to overeat. (See previous post)

Just Like Big Tobacco

“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.”
— Kelly Brownell, Yale Professor of Psychology & Public Health

These words were spoken at a meeting of big food CEOs back in 1999. They were the masters of the food Universe who reign over such brands as General Mills, Pillsbury, Kraft, General Foods, and the like, under which almost every recognizable processed food under the sun is produced and distributed.

General Mills then-CEO, Stephen Sanger, had heard enough, though. Consumers are fickle. General Mills provides low sugar, low-fat, added whole grain, and other options to satisfy all tastes. General Mills would continue to act responsibly toward its shareholders by providing these options, but most of all by addressing the consumers who don’t care at all about nutrition…who value taste over everything…who spend big bucks on packaged foods.

“Don’t talk to me about nutrition,” he reportedly said, taking on the voice of the typical consumer. “Talk to me about taste, and if this stuff tastes better, don’t run around trying to sell stuff that doesn’t taste good.”

Thus, the meeting, which was an attempt to improve food industry practices, came to an end. Extinguished.

Michael Moss, author of Salt Sugar Fat, says:

“What I found, over four years of research and reporting, 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.”

The adaptation of his book in The New York Times Magazine goes on to illustrate the following:

  • Food and beverage companies targeted rapidly growing minority communities
  • Multivariate consumer testing data is dumped into computers whose algorithms choose winning combinations of color, ingredients, and labeling
  • There is a so-called engineering approach to creating consumer foods
  • The “bliss point” consists of strong, initial sensory intensity followed by mid-level sweetness

“There’s no moral issue for me. I did the best science I could. I was struggling to survive and didn’t have the luxury of being a moral creature. As a researcher, I was ahead of my time.”
— Howard Moskovitz, Ph.D. in Mathematics, Ph.D. in Experimental Psychology, and “Food Optimizer” for the food industry

  • The military has conducted satiety research to help ensure soldiers in the field eat enough calories instead of becoming bored with their MREs and tossing them out half-eaten
  • Sensory specific satiety helps to tell the brain to stop eating, and therefore popular products, like Coca-Cola and Doritos, rely on formulas that do not contain a single, overriding flavor
  • Kraft Foods’ Lunchables came about as the result of a focus group of working moms who desired to provide their children with healthy lunches at school — and after selling over $200 million dollars worth in the first year, they eventually came to include M&Ms, Snicker Bars, Capri Sun sugar drinks, cookies, and such.

‘They’ve got too much sugar, they’ve got too much salt. Well, that’s what the consumer wants, and we’re not putting a gun to their head to eat it. That’s what they want. If we give them less, they’ll buy less, and the competitor will get our market. So you’re sort of trapped.”
– Geoffrey Bible, former CEO Philip Morris

  • A chief scientist at Frito Lay expressed concern that his company was using science to thwart health concerns, instead of to address them
  • Snacking habits and purchases do not necessarily decline as consumers age — in fact, they go up.
  • Chip manufacturers use a $40,000 device to simulate chewing a chip in their attempts to find the perfect “breaking point”
  • Snack makers are looking to make a salt substitute that will encourage consumers to snack more…since they’ll feel less guilty about eating less salt

“While people like and enjoy potato chips, they feel guilty about liking them…unconsciously, people expect to be punished for ‘letting themselves go’ and enjoying them. You can’t stop eating them; they’re fattening; they’re not good for you; they’re greasy and messy to eat; they’re too expensive; it’s hard to store the leftovers; and they’re bad for children.”
— Ernest Dichter, Psychologist, from a report prepared for Frito-Lay in 1957

You can thank Dichter for smaller packages and the industry’s discontinuation of the word fried.

Forever Young

All of the bullet points we’ve covered here range from alarming to, perhaps, fist-waving. But one thing really stands out for me: that as consumers age, they don’t stop buying junk food. In fact, they continue to purchase even more. This is likely due to having become larger from gaining weight and actually requiring more calories to sustain themselves.

But what about the decision making?

This explains why I see so many full-grown adults in the grocery store pushing around shopping carts filled with neon packaging, squeezable this, bendable that, and color-changing whatnots — just as if a typical 7-year old was doing the purchasing.

An argument can be made that typical modern-day dogs never really grow up. Perpetual puppies. They are fed, they’re groomed, and they’re coddled for their entire lives. They never hunt. They never work. They don’t roam in free packs, learning from each other. They’re nourished with biscuits. They beg.

Sure they’ve survived. But have they, really?

And what is it about the human condition that has potentially created this same effect in us? Have we been so removed from our food, from direct work, from each other…that we aren’t really growing up, experiencing real life, and maturing into adults?

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