Monday, April 3, 2017

Break me off a piece of that sugar, chocolate, and palm kernel oil composite

One of my selections for Deal Me In was “The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food,” an article by Michael Moss on how food companies refine their products to increase consumption as much as possible.

The article looks at the issue from the point-of-view of the companies and their scientists and marketers. We come across as lab rats sucking on sugar water in a bare cage. Any weakness, preference, or craving is an opening for more food to pour in. (I love the names of some of these - a cheap substitute for cheese might be something called “cheese food.” It’s cheese-like in nature; cheese-ish.)

Moss presents three main examples of companies refining products and campaigns to maximize consumption. One example is a type of soda, the second involves processed meats, and a third is salty chips. I learned some interesting things, like “sensory-specific satiety” - when a food has a strong distinct flavor, people will generally eat less of it; as such, companies design food to offer just enough flavor for an appealing taste, but not enough to discourage over-eating.

I don’t want to diminish the effect of personal choice. People can become more health-conscious and more mindful of what they eat. However, it’s still disturbing to see the consumer through the eyes of these companies and witness the unevenness of the struggle - with one side bringing to bear tons of money and expertise on food science, psychology, and advertising, and the other side bringing incomplete information and a host of personal weaknesses.

When certain segments of the population do become more resistant to blatant junk, companies apply other strategies. One is to provide seemingly healthier options (which often sound healthier but don’t hold up to scrutiny). Another big one is to target vulnerable populations - kids, for instance, and poor people both in the US and abroad. One executive Moss met suffered a crisis of conscience after scouting out impoverished neighborhoods in Brazil. (“These people need a lot of things, but they don’t need a Coke,” he remembered thinking.) There are parallels to tobacco companies that expand from countries that require warning labels and launch public health campaigns, to countries that are poorer or have fewer regulations.

Some of the scientists, marketers, and executives admit feeling guilty or uneasy over their products (one even switched jobs to launch a marketing campaign for carrots as a kind of atonement). But the industry as a whole keeps unleashing its carefully engineered products. It’s what the customers want, right? The customers have spoken, have received more than is good for them, and what they’ve received has primed them for more. The tweaks in taste and packaging are only a part of it. The psychology of eating - people’s self-regard, their stress, their need for pleasure, and in some cases an attempt to fill a bottomless emptiness with food - all of these are critical to understanding excessive junk food consumption, but understandably one article can’t get into all of it.