Manufacturing Cravings: How the Food Industry Feeds Us

Tomiko Peirano

Tomiko Peirano › Tomiko has amassed decades of experience in the food industry, from her family's restaurant in Oregon's ...

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Michael Moss’ article “The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food” for The New York Times Magazine is one of the most important pieces of mainstream media to examine the disturbing research and development driving America’s processed food industry. It is an adapted excerpt of his upcoming book Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us (Random House, 2013).

Moss has spent the last few years collecting information and conducting interviews with some of the leading figures behind this multi-billion dollar industry, and the result is both jaw-dropping and stomach-churning.

How many times do you joke about being addicted to a flavor of soda or feel that you just can’t control your cravings for potato chips? Well, it would seem that can’t-be-stopped reaction is precisely what processed food manufacturers are aiming for.

The public’s perceptions of flavor, texture, packaging and the relative guilt about the food we eat have all been quantified and converted into the building blocks of some of the most popular products in the grocery store.

It is not surprising that such concentrated efforts go into developing these products (again, this is a multi-billion dollar industry we’re talking about), but it is chilling to realize how doggedly the major food brands have zeroed in our sensorial Achilles’ heel to create a loyal – and addicted – customer base.

Data-Driven Flavor

Moss speaks at length with Howard Moskowitz, a “food-industry legend,” about the science of determining our tastes and our cravings. Moskowitz has been instrumental in creating such ideas as the “bliss point” (the specific combination of flavor factors that consumers like most) and “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.

Moskowitz’ leading research in these areas has led to wildly popular sodas and sauces, millions of dollars in profit, and a buying public that is completely devoted to product X without realizing why.

The Power of Packaging

Apart from the work in formulating the most successful flavor, big food brands are incredibly savvy when it comes to the packaging and placement of their products. How can this product be presented as the best solution to a harried mom or a low-income neighborhood?

Moss holds up Lunchables as an example of a focus group-driven revamping of an outdated good, in this case Oscar Meyer bologna, into a cool cafeteria must-have and market behemoth. Frito-Lay overcame its ‘bad for you’ rap by following the advice of Ernest Dichter, a psychologist, and sending out their product in smaller units:

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.

Coca-Cola is pretty ruthless in its mission to overtake the soda and beverage market. The company is outmaneuvering the competition in lower-income neighborhoods in Brazil by offering its soda in smaller bottles, and therefore, at lower prices — a seemingly positive option for the poor consumer. As one former Coca-Cola executive said to Moss, “The selling of food matters as much as the food itself.”

Are We Hopelessly Hooked?

There are instances of companies trying to offer a lower-fat or reduced-sodium version of their star products, but the common result is consumer rejection because it doesn’t taste good. But what came first in this supply and demand debacle? Have our collective taste buds been so thoroughly conditioned that we can no longer appreciate a chip that isn’t packed with salt or a beverage that isn’t chock-full of sugar?

If Americans snacked only occasionally, and in small amounts, this would not present the enormous problem that it does. But because so much money and effort has been invested over decades in engineering and then relentlessly selling these products, the effects are seemingly impossible to unwind.

While said effects might seem impossible to unwind, Michael Moss has opened up an incisive and important path to awareness and, hopefully, greater consumer action. No one likes being played for a fool, and that’s exactly what’s happened to us. Kicking these controlled cravings will not be easy for anyone, but it is possible. The Coke-bottle glasses can come off.

Click here to read the article in full.

How much of this information came as a surprise to you?

Image Credit: Grant Cornett | The New York Times