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Making Our Junk Food More Addictive

April 17, 2013

A bit like the old adage, “gravity isn’t just a good idea, it’s the law,” there is reason to suspect that food isn’t just necessary, it’s addictive.

And therein lies the conundrum: The diet high in fat, sugar and salt is unhealthy, but it sure tastes good. Fat and sugar are two of the most pleasurable elements of the diet in terms of taste preferences, a fact not lost on the transnational food corporations who are tempting us with their processed delights. Clearly part of the obesity challenge is to provide more varied and tasteful diets, that along with increased activity levels, will help to reduce the prevalence of obesity, adult-onset diabetes and cancer related to nutrition and exercise.

In late February the New York Times published an article by Michael Moss titled The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food. Moss won a Pulitzer Prize in 2010 for his reporting on the meat industry, and the article was adapted from his subsequently published book Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. In a nutshell, Moss says that it’s not just a matter of poor willpower on the part of the consumer and a give-the-people-what-they-want attitude on the part of the food manufacturer, but rather 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 processed food industry knows that big profits require a sustained effort in both marketing and science, and Wall Street punishes those who let margins slip in the name of health.

Moss’s book discusses the armies of food scientists and technicians, psychologists, and marketing teams that are fully engaged in optimizing food sales. They are locating the “bliss point,” avoiding “sensory-specific satiety,” maximizing crave, and formulating products to deliver that sugar, fat, and salt that they have helped the limbic brain yearn for.

It’s not an encouraging read. As one reviewer lamented, “we’ve eaten like a nation of impulsive teenagers, happy to pay for a diet of carnival food. Our adolescent food culture fell hard for the romance of industrial perfectibility and the “convenience doctrine”: the proposition that easy should define good in American eating.”

Is government regulation the answer? Could social costs (externalities) somehow be quantified and assigned to the responsible parties? This would likely result in significant price differentials between healthy and unhealthy food, thereby making better dietary choices more “economically palatable.” But the lower-priced alternatives must also taste good (be equally addictive).

I asked Mr. Moss if he thought government regulation was necessary, and if highly palatable foods could ever compete with diets high in sugar, fat and salt. His reply is guardedly optimistic:

I’m struck by how many of the food scientists and marketers that I interviewed for the book now have regrets about their work on behalf of the processed food industry, and are eager to make amends, or as one former Coca-Cola president put it to me, to account for his “karmic debt.” These are very smart, resourceful people who know what it takes to create and market products that are sure winners in the grocery store, and they believe that the food giants’ path to truly healthier food is not merely reducing this or that, as in creating lower sugar or lower fat versions of their mainline products. Rather, they speak of the need for Manhattan-style projects, with the best and brightest engaged in creating — from the shelf-up, so to speak — truly new products that are nutritious, reasonably priced and tasty without compelling us to overeat. Why not invent a breakfast cereal made from nuts, and not sugar? Or tomato sauce made from great tasting tomatoes, instead of sodden ones needing sweeteners? Or research to make fresh fruits and vegetables less expensive to grow, rather that putting all our scientific effort and subsidies into making corn and soy so cheap? This will sound expensive and risky to the food giant CEOs, who are closely attuned to their revenue projections and Wall Street’s oversight. But if consumers raise their voices loudly enough, and through their purchases act on the growing concern worldwide about what we put into our bodies, then the food giants will respond in the only way that we can expect them to respond: by being companies that make money by selling product that people will buy. We could wait a long time for the food giants to adopt ethics that put consumer health over profits. Prodding them to profit from new products that will promote better health could show some swift results.

For a link to related AJPM articles, you can go to AJPM Collections: Diet and Obesity.

— Michael Lytton, AJPM Blog Editor

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