Sugar Salt Fat: Food Addiction

As a rule, I stay away from the comment section on any opinion page or editorial. The insanity that ensues as strangers hurl their hateful opinions is too overwhelming. But today, as I sat at my desk eating my black beans during my lunch break, I somehow ended up just in the place I try to avoid. The opinion piece was posted on CNN and it was about the American Medical Association's decision to label obese people "diseased" and, as expected, it was the fury of hateful comments that caught my attention. Specifically, the arguments that "there is no such thing a food addiction; cut the crap" and "lack of self control is of course the root to obesity." I am astounded by both the hatefulness and lack of understanding.

A few posts back I mentioned my concern that people are unaware that many of the foods they eat are intentionally engineered to be addictive. The readers’ comments above surprise me because they’re evidence of people who are aware of the idea that food can be addictive but firmly believe it’s not true. In February, the New York Times Magazine published an exert of Michael Moss's book, Sugar Sat Fat: How the food giants hooked us. The book details specific addictive traits food manufacturers work to capture in their products. Traits that intentionally trick both your mind and stomach into thinking you’re not full and you really want MORE. There are records of experiments, focus groups and memos – none of that is up for debate; it’s just true. I’m left to hope that people denying the addictive qualities of modern America’s diet are simply uninformed on the matter.

Personally, having spent the last four years working hard to overcome my own food addictions (starting with Lean Cuisines in 2009), I empathize with anyone who is trying to change their lifestyle but finding it nearly impossible. To look at the issue as an addiction may change the approach used when trying to break the habit. Assuming, shareholders will  continue to win over what's best for the common good, I do not look to lawmakers to solve this issue. This is a personal responsibility that each person must address for themselves. Doing so requires a bit of self-eduction.

In the case of children, it is the responsibility of both parents to work towards prevention of food addictions. But where does prevention of food addiction start? The womb? Formula? Baby food? Teething snacks? Five years ago I'd have given a toddler a box of Goldfish crackers without a second thought. Today I'd be unlikely to hand them a Cheerio. In fact, when O&I have children I anticipate the family looking at me as "that crazy hippy Mom" after I explain I'd prefer them to not offer my child processed snacks and sweets. You want to give my kid a squished grape or some smushed avocado - go right ahead!

The reality of this is a struggle, I know. My best friend from college, an amazingly successful and very cool art director, has a toddler in daycare. She has told me of the frustrations around limiting the amount of sugar her son is offered everyday. The only friend I have who seems to have no trouble raising a child on natural foods is a work-at-home Mom who has the ability to supervise (almost) everything that goes into her son's mouth. 

I'm not suggesting I have the answers to Food Addiction and Prevention. But I am saying it is time for EVERYONE to take ten minutes and realistically consider how it effects both their lives and the lives of people they love.=

*The NY Times article (exerted from the book) is very long but also fascinating and definitely worth the time it takes to read it. Link to full article here. Credit to MICHAEL MOSSHighlights: 
In the process of product optimization, food engineers alter a litany of variables with the sole intent of finding the most perfect version (or versions) of a product. Ordinary consumers are paid to spend hours sitting in rooms where they touch, feel, sip, smell, swirl and taste whatever product is in question. Their opinions are dumped into a computer, and the data are sifted and sorted through a statistical method called conjoint analysis, which determines what features will be most attractive to consumers...

The public and the food companies have known for decades now — or at the very least since this meeting — that sugary, salty, fatty foods are not good for us in the quantities that we consume them. So why are the diabetes and obesity and hypertension numbers still spiraling out of control? 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 manufacturers. 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.

...“Sensory-specific satiety.” In lay terms, it is the tendency for big, distinct flavors to overwhelm the brain, which responds by depressing your desire to have more. Sensory-specific satiety also became a guiding principle for the processed-food industry. The biggest hits — be they Coca-Cola or Doritos — owe their success to complex formulas that pique the taste buds enough to be alluring but don’t have a distinct, overriding single flavor that tells the brain to stop eating...

One of the company’s responses to criticism is that kids don’t eat the Lunchables every day — on top of which, when it came to trying to feed them more healthful foods, kids themselves were unreliable. When their parents packed fresh carrots, apples and water, they couldn’t be trusted to eat them. Once in school, they often trashed the healthful stuff in their brown bags to get right to the sweets.

This idea — that kids are in control — would become a key concept in the evolving marketing campaigns for the trays. In what would prove to be their greatest achievement of all, the Lunchables team would delve into adolescent psychology to discover that it wasn’t the food in the trays that excited the kids; it was the feeling of power it brought to their lives. As Bob Eckert, then the C.E.O. of Kraft, put it in 1999: “Lunchables aren’t about lunch. It’s about kids being able to put together what they want to eat, anytime, anywhere.”

Kraft’s early Lunchables campaign targeted mothers. They might be too distracted by work to make a lunch, but they loved their kids enough to offer them this prepackaged gift. But as the focus swung toward kids, Saturday-morning cartoons started carrying an ad that offered a different message: “All day, you gotta do what they say,” the ads said. “But lunchtime is all yours.”

Frito-Lay had a formidable research complex near Dallas, where nearly 500 chemists, psychologists and technicians conducted research that cost up to $30 million a year, and the science corps focused intense amounts of resources on questions of crunch, mouth feel and aroma for each of these items. Their tools included a $40,000 device that simulated a chewing mouth to test and perfect the chips, discovering things like the perfect break point: people like a chip that snaps with about four pounds of pressure per square inch.

To get a better feel for their work, I called on Steven Witherly, a food scientist who wrote a fascinating guide for industry insiders titled, “Why Humans Like Junk Food.” I brought him two shopping bags filled with a variety of chips to taste. He zeroed right in on the Cheetos. “This,” Witherly said, “is one of the most marvelously constructed foods on the planet, in terms of pure pleasure.” He ticked off a dozen attributes of the Cheetos that make the brain say more. But the one he focused on most was the puff’s uncanny ability to melt in the mouth. “It’s called vanishing caloric density,” Witherly said. “If something melts down quickly, your brain thinks that there’s no calories in it . . . you can just keep eating it forever.”

Carey’s quote reminded me of something I read in the early stages of my reporting, a 24-page report prepared for Frito-Lay in 1957 by a psychologist named Ernest Dichter. The company’s chips, he wrote, were not selling as well as they could for one simple reason: “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.” Dichter listed seven “fears and resistances” to the chips: “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.” He spent the rest of his memo laying out his prescriptions, which in time would become widely used not just by Frito-Lay but also by the entire industry. Dichter suggested that Frito-Lay avoid using the word “fried” in referring to its chips and adopt instead the more healthful-sounding term “toasted.” To counteract the “fear of letting oneself go,” he suggested repacking the chips into smaller bags. “The more-anxious consumers, the ones who have the deepest fears about their capacity to control their appetite, will tend to sense the function of the new pack and select it,” he said.

Dichter advised Frito-Lay to move its chips out of the realm of between-meals snacking and turn them into an ever-present item in the American diet. “The increased use of potato chips and other Lay’s products as a part of the regular fare served by restaurants and sandwich bars should be encouraged in a concentrated way,” Dichter said, citing a string of examples: “potato chips with soup, with fruit or vegetable juice appetizers; potato chips served as a vegetable on the main dish; potato chips with salad; potato chips with egg dishes for breakfast; potato chips with sandwich orders.”

“Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us,” published by Random House. Michael Moss won a Pulitzer Prize in 2010 for his reporting on the meat industry.