If certain foods are as addictive for some people as drugs, then what do you call companies that manufacture foods in such as way as to make them as addictive as possible? Can food companies work something like the way drug pushers do?
A new book by a Pulitzer-prize winning reporter for the New York Times suggests that this may be the case. Michael Moss spent years studying how big food companies like Kraft, General Mills and Coca Cola actually “engineer” foods for taste not nutrition. Their goal is to create as many “heavy users” as possible, with heavy users being people who cannot stop eating favorites like potato chips and caffeinated sodas, possibly because they have developed addictions to them. Their other goal is to increase their “stomach share,” which is food company lingo for a portion of the profits of the food industry.
And even a small share of a $1 trillion annual business is a lot of money. The varieties and numbers of convenience foods really took off in the last three decades when more American families have both parents working and are demanding more convenience in food preparation and clean-up. The 30 big food manufacturers now employ over 1.4 million people who make over 60,000 different products in an industry that began only about a century ago with packaged cereal.
Moss, who had access to thousands of internal communications among food executives, believes that the food giants are completely profit-driven and concerned only about their bottom lines and sales, and not about delivering nutrition. They spend millions of dollars a year in extremely sophisticated research to design those foods most likely to sell. As Bob Drane, inventor of Kraft’s “Lunchables” line, once said, “The goal is to discover what consumers want to buy and give it to them both barrels.”
The author points to a meeting some fourteen years ago that may have been a turning point for the industry. Executive officers of major food companies had assembled to discuss the growing demand for more healthful foods and the increasing threat of government intervention. Moss reports that Stephen Sanger, CEO of General Mills, more or less ended the discussions when he said, “Don’t talk to me about nutrition. Talk to me about taste, and if this stuff tastes better, don’t run around trying to sell stuff that doesn’t taste good.”
Moss entitled his book “Sugar, Salt, Fat” after the holy trinity of flavorings the food companies use to hook people on packaged foods. The food giants know that foods pumped up with salt, sugar and fat only keep you craving more and do not satisfy your hunger. They also know how to design drinks so full of sodium that you keep drinking them because they make you constantly thirsty. Healthy low-calorie foods like unflavored yogurt have gradually become dessert foods advertised as “wholesome” even though they contain more sugar than some cookies. Many packaged cereals are now 75% sugar. Fat is the second addictive substance used by food companies. Today the average American eats 33 pounds of cheese a year, mainly because adding cheese to foods is an easy and delicious way to get people to consume more fat. And Americans are also eating tons of salty snacks, most of which are varieties on the same theme of heavily fried and salted starch. There may be an endless variety of potato chips — barbeque chips, salt and vinegar chips, cheesy chips, etc– but they are all the same thing.
Taste drives food sales so today’s foods are designed to take you to the “bliss point,” according to Moss, who uses Cherry Vanilla Dr. Pepper drinks as an example. This version of Dr. Pepper, which took months of testing to develop, is complex in flavor but yet not distinct enough in taste to signal to the brain to stop drinking it. Thus the taste of Cherry Vanilla Dr. Pepper encourages “heavy using.”
From the standpoint of “bliss point” foods, Cheetos are “one of the most marvelously constructed foods on the planet,” as food scientist Steven Witherly says. Cheetos melt in your mouth so that your brain does not register how full you are getting. This phenomenon is called “vanishing calorie density” and keeps you eating them forever.
“Product optimization” is the process of developing the flavors and textures of soups, spaghetti sauces, salad dressings, cola drinks to create the most repeat buyers and heavy users. “Optimized” products invariably contain more salt, sugar and fat than old-fashioned recipes, which turn them into foods that are more addictive and more problematical for health.
Food giants also market their products in such a way as to keep “heavy users” consuming them. Ads might have the theme “You deserve it!” implying it is okay to pig out on salty snacks, or ads imply the product is part of your identity — “I’m a Pepper, You’re a Pepper.” The ads also de-emphasize the downsides of the nutritional profiles of the foods by emphasizing what’s good about them. For example, sugary yogurt is “low fat” and “high in calcium,” and sugary cereals “contain added vitamins.” While the companies are required by law to use nutritional labels, they get around this by making the serving sizes tiny. A typical consumer who just scans the labels may believe that a food is less caloric and lower in fat than it really is. Much of the advertising is aimed at children and people who know little about nutrition.
According to Moss, this kind of deception has been going on a long time. Even as far back as 1957, a psychologist named Ernest Dichter told the manufacturers of Frito-Lay to call the product “toasted” not fried, to put it in smaller packages so heavy users are less likely to feel guilty about pigging out on a big supply, and to encourage restaurants to serve chips as a vegetable side with regular meals.
Another food company trick is to have grocery stores place junk food on shelves at eye level so you have to stoop or reach to find the healthier products like plain oatmeal.
The results of such aggressive advertising, placement and designing foods for “bliss points” and “optimization” is that one in three adults and one in five children in the United States is now obese, and more than half the population is overweight. Some 25 million Americans are diabetic, and 79 million are pre-diabetic. Baby boomers, who grew up on convenience foods, are “grazing” all day and replacing regular meals with snacks, and their children and grandchildren are following their leads.
The revolution in convenience foods is occurring at a time when new scientific research using brain scan technology is slowly coming to the conclusion that food addictions can be every bit as powerful for certain people as drug addictions. A study done by Dr. Nora Volkow, now director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse, found the brain neurons that make you feel good about a milkshake are the same ones that reward you for drugs.” A study from Yale University found that neural activity in the brains of obese people when compared to those of moderate weight, is more similar to the brains of substance abusers. The research team concluded, “This may partially explain the differences people experience in achieving sustainable weight loss.”
The link between genetic factors for alcoholism and food addiction has already been established in that the two are “cross-inheritable,” which means that if you have the genes for alcoholism, you also carry the ones for food addiction. A study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry found that women with alcoholic relatives are 49% more likely to obese than women not related to alcoholics. A study published in the Journal of Addictive Diseases found that alcohol consumption increases after people undergo weight loss surgery, and that the higher a person’s BMI, the lower his consumption of alcohol.
Food addictions may work something like drug addiction and alcoholism in that certain people are predisposed to them because of genetic factors, prenatal exposures, childhood trauma, and other differences. While perhaps 90% of the population drink alcohol in moderate amounts, those predisposed to addiction cannot. The same may be true of food addicts, as certain studies of laboratory animals indicate.
When laboratory animals were allowed access to sweet, salty and fatty foods like cheesecake and bacon for an hour a day, they waited for that hour before they ate anything and then binged, according to a study published in the journal Neuroscience. When access to those foods was withdrawn from them, the animals developed anxiety, tremors and chattering teeth — classic drug withdrawal symptoms.
Moss’ research and the new research into food addiction may open the way toward increased governmental regulation of the food industry. What already occurred with cigarette industry would become relevant to the future of food. It would be possible for the government to restrict the advertising and sale of certain foods to children, to put warning labels on certain foods, and to pass laws like the one Mayor Michael Bloomberg initiated recently in New York City. The mayor proposed a ban on the sale of large containers (over 16 ounces) of sugary drinks in restaurants and other establishments regulated by the city’s health department. While the law passed, it was quickly overturned by a judge who called it too “arbitrary and capricious”.
Nevertheless, Moss’ book and the new addiction research may rekindle such government efforts in the future. It may also reframe thinking within the scientific and medical communities about why some people become overweight and have so much trouble losing pounds and maintaining their losses. Dieting could become “recovery” from a life-threatening addiction. As Mayor Bloomberg said, “Obesity kills. There is no question that it kills.”
The only question is when and how do we do something about it.