In the late 1980s, the great American crack epidemic was gathering momentum. Reports that fetuses were inevitably damaged by the maternal cocaine use were taken seriously. Years went by and sober research was done, and the whole crack baby threat later turned out to be greatly exaggerated.
In 1987, when No More Cravings was published, Dr. Douglas Hunt was called an eccentric and worse. But he wasn’t talking about cocaine derivatives. His job was to issue an early warning about food addiction:
It may begin before birth if the mother takes in too much salt during pregnancy. Salty baby foods follow, then junk foods during childhood.
Was Dr. Hunt’s belief about salt a workable hypothesis or a baseless hunch? Does an overabundance of salt in a mother’s diet hurt an unborn baby? Nobody seems to have looked into that very much. It’s not even clear if there is a genetic predisposition toward salt craving. But wouldn’t it be ironic if it turns out, some day, to be obvious that salt has done more pervasive and long-lasting prenatal damage than crack?
Of course, humans need a certain amount of salt, but craving leads a lot of people to use too much of it, to the detriment of their health. Excessive salt is definitely not good for children or adults, this much is widely acknowledged, and The New York Times investigative reporter Michael Moss is fully on board. His book, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, has gotten a lot of attention lately. The word “hooked” is indicative of the attitude.
Moss spent four years interviewing more than 300 people in the processed food industry (or formerly employed by it, a position more apt to lead to revelations.) Gathering this information confirmed his suspicion that they are well aware of the addictive potential of salt, sugar, and other substances. They’re getting consumers hooked on purpose.
Moss quotes Geoffrey Bible, the former head of Philip Morris USA (which is also Kraft Foods):
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.
Correct. Nobody is putting a gun to anyone’s head, forcing them to partake. The same truth has no doubt been uttered, hundreds, if not thousands of times, by crack dealers. Who needs a gun to sell product, when the customer’s proclivity for addiction does all the work for you?
The sad part is, Bible is right about the other thing, too. In the book, Moss chronicles several instances of food companies that made honest attempts to squeeze a bit of nutrition into products, only to watch them fail abysmally.
The better to, you know, give the people what they want, food engineers use advanced scientific techniques to find out which combinations of ingredients are most irresistible. To call the technicians engineers is not a slur, by the way. It’s what they call themselves. When Moss was collecting his ammunition, Frito-Lay alone was spending $30 million a year to keep “nearly 500 chemists, psychologists and technicians” busy creating more addictive junk food.
Howard Moskowitz, one of the subjects Moss interviewed, is a Doctor of Experimental Psychology and also a mathematician. Thanks to his cooperation, Moss was able to observe and write lavish descriptions of how experiments are conducted. Moss says:
In the most complicated projects, Color 23 must be combined with Syrup 11 and Packaging 6, and on and on, in seemingly infinite combinations. Even for jobs in which the only concern is taste and the variables are limited to the ingredients, endless charts and graphs will come spewing out of Moskowitz’s computer.
An expert in cravings, Moskowitz is credited with the discovery of the “bliss point” where just enough of a substance is present to get the maximum effect, without reaching a juncture where diminishing returns begin to set in. Obligingly, Moss quotes the researcher’s feeling about this:
There’s no moral issue for me. I did the best science I could. I was struggling to survive and didn’t have the luxury of being a moral creature. As a researcher, I was ahead of my time.
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