Tortured junk-food pushers bare all

A long, investigative feature on junk food, health and the processed food industry in yesterday's NYT consists primarily of interviews with tortured and semi-tortured junk food scientists and execs who have perfected the art of getting you to eat food that makes you sick. It's quite a read:

Eventually, a line of the trays, appropriately called Maxed Out, was released that had as many as nine grams of saturated fat, or nearly an entire day’s recommended maximum for kids, with up to two-thirds of the max for sodium and 13 teaspoons of sugar.

When I asked Geoffrey Bible, former C.E.O. of Philip Morris, about this shift toward more salt, sugar and fat in meals for kids, he smiled and noted that even in its earliest incarnation, Lunchables was held up for criticism. “One article said something like, ‘If you take Lunchables apart, the most healthy item in it is the napkin.’ ”

Well, they did have a good bit of fat, I offered. “You bet,” he said. “Plus cookies.”

The prevailing attitude among the company’s food managers — through the 1990s, at least, before obesity became a more pressing concern — was one of supply and demand. “People could point to these things and say, ‘They’ve got too much sugar, they’ve got too much salt,’ ” Bible said. “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.” (Bible would later press Kraft to reconsider its reliance on salt, sugar and fat.)

Here's another good bit:

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.”

The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food [NYT/Michael Moss]

(Image: Snakes?, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from reallynuts's photostream)



  1. The part where the highly-paid, Harvard-educated food consultant Howard Moskowitz says (a) he has no moral qualms, (b) “I was struggling to survive and didn’t have the luxury of being a moral creature,” and yet ALSO feels compelled to point out that he, (c) “worked on numerous projects aimed at creating more healthful foods” is a classic of rationalizing and moral decrapitude and bears calling out.

  2. 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.”

    Am I alone in finding cheetos and doritos to be two of the most repulsive and inedible things ever conceived? Not to knock all junk food – I’ll still go for fritos and chips without all the flavoring goop sprinkled all over them. But cheetos and doritos don’t even appeal a little bit.

    1.  Yeah, processed cheese powder is pretty hit-or-miss.

      Oddly enough, I like cheetos but not doritos or cheese puffs. I think the texture overrides the cheese-powder taste.

    2. You like Fritos?  Ewwww!!

      It’s all subjective, and as A Viescas points out, texture is a big factor.  

      1. No argument there. For cheetos, it’s having my teeth encased in an insoluble orange carbonite that really puts me off. :-)

      2. Yeah… Oddly, I like Doritos, but Fritos make me physically nauseous. Odder still, they seem to be made from nearly the same ingredients. I tend to keep a large container of Costco’s mixed nuts mixed with raisins handy so I can avoid this crap altogether. 

      3. fritos, cheetos; i’ll eat pretty much anything I can cram into my mouth, but it bears remarking that the paws of certain dogs smell EXACTLY like fritos.  i’m serious.  not every dog, but it’s pretty common.

        give the paws of the next couple dogs you meet a sniff.  what has been smelled cannot be unsmelled.

        1. Right about now, I’m supremely glad I don’t come into contact with dogs with mentionable frequency.

    3. Certainly not. Never liked Cheetos and only liked the plain Doritos, which I guess they don’t even make anymore. OTOH, Barbara’s Cheese Puffs are immaculate. Single most satisfying junk food to me.

      1. “Classic” Doritos are sold under the variety name of “Toasted Corn” these days. A little difficult to find, but they are still produced, but not nearly as popular as the other flavored varieties.

    4. I’ve never eaten that stuff. I’ve always found it repulsive. I have the same reaction to Snacky Cakes. When your mother makes homemade devil’s food cake with homemade buttercream frosting, Twinkies don’t really hold any appeal.

      1. I occurs to me every once in a while that there must have been a time, mid-century, when people who knew how much better real cake is chose to eat twinkies anyway.

    1.  My mother worked with a company providing benefits services for Philip Morris and frequently had meetings with people on the PM side.  She hated these meetings more than any part of her job.  She said the people she worked with at PM were invariably nasty, hateful people.

      I’m sure there are lots of nice people working at PM, but I do wonder if the practices of the company affect the culture, if only because of the sorts of people who are willing to work at such a place.

  3. Who would have thought that Geoffrey Bible, former C.E.O. of Philip Morris (cigarette manufacturer) would have an interest in addictive food!

  4. I never, ever buy salty/starchy snacks to have around the house. That stuff is crack.

    OK, I do have a box of Saltine crackers in my emergency supplies. They’re probably way over their best-by date by now.  Which is a good way to avoid the temptation of eating them before the Big One hits.

        1.  For what it is, Easy Cheese is an amazingly unadulterated product, actually. One would expect the ingredients to be a chemical soup, but they’re pretty straightforward.

    1. Do not for a minute think that saltine crackers have an indefinite shelf life. They absolutely do not. I recently ripped into a sleeve that was long past date and the crackers were actually….sour.

  5.  “Well, that’s what the consumer wants, and we’re not putting a gun to their head to eat it.”

    Ahh, but  nobody is holding a gun to a heroin addict’s head either, it is the drug that does that, and when you deliberately make food to stimulate the pleasure centers of the brain with no regard for actual nutritional value, aren’t you essentially making a drug?  Saying “that’s what the consumer wants” is a cop-out, you created a food that is borderline addictive (“can’t eat just one!”, the famous potato chip tag line)– I know plenty of cigarette smokers who DON’T want to smoke, they don’t actually want the product they buy every day.

    1. And much like cigarettes, they will eventually find themselves having to dance on the line of  finding out how far you can push people by tempting them, developing addictions and subsidizing the prices of the base products before they die too quickly and leave you without their lifetime-value of uncontrollable face stuffing.

    2.  yeah, well, you’re right.  but the part about “if we don’t do it, the competitor will and then the competitor gets the business” is also true.  yet another flaw in the free market.  there’s no sense demonizing the representative of one manufacturer or the other when the market will provide junk food regardless.  there’s a bug in our code:  we want stuff that kills us.  could we outlaw the stuff in junk food?  would it help?  as with drugs, I think the best we can hope for is education and slow change in the culture.

  6. Ironically most of the foods like this I eat are for the taste of the additive flavor, not the actual chip or what not.  I just want more flavor in my stuff, like some sour cream and onion chips that were as strong as a bag of spicy nacho Doritos.  I will say my favorites are the spicy nacho Doritos, Munchies, and ranch flavored wheat thins… 

    I feel very bad for myself when I consume half a bag and a liter of Mt. Dew…..*sigh*

  7. The Japanese have it right. My Japanese wife always chew every piece of food twenty times. Every bite of meat, carrot, kernel of corn, grain of rice, and mouthful of milk(the Japanese consider it a food, and not a drink). That way you will feel full when you need to be, and not overindulge. Plus you can concentrate on the foods you enjoy to eat this way. Umami FTW.

    Food is not a game, or a toy, it is something to enjoy.

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