We were talking about a very comprehensive New York Times piece that blew the lid off a few mysteries. In the course of four years’ research, Michael Moss listened to a massive number of sources with firsthand knowledge of how Big Food operates. What he found was a conscious effort “to get people hooked on foods that are convenient and inexpensive.” Coincidentally, most of those products also happen to be nutritionally void or close to it; and are consciously engineered to encourage abuse.
In “The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food” Moss reported on a top-level meeting of Big Food bigwigs, where sensitive matters were discussed. In reporting on it later, he was “struck by how prescient the organizers of the sit-down had been.” They were well aware that public concern about childhood obesity was coming at them like an asteroid hurtling toward a planet. The industry’s top echelon saw the future, and chose not to care.
The writer stops short of claiming that consumers are powerless, but they are “extremely vulnerable to the intensity of these companies’ industrial formulations and selling campaigns.” He indicts labs, marketing meetings, and retail grocery outlets:
I talked to more than 300 people in or formerly employed by the processed-food industry, from scientists to marketers to C.E.O.’s. Some were willing whistle-blowers, while others spoke reluctantly when presented with some of the thousands of pages of secret memos that I obtained from inside the food industry’s operations.
A particularly revelatory and pertinent story was that of Howard Moskowitz, a consultant with a degree in experimental psychology, and wizard-like capabilities in product optimization. He had learned a lot from studying soldiers on behalf of the U.S. government, which needed to provide tons of MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) in cans for soldiers in the field. Moskowitz told the interviewer,
They liked flavorful foods like turkey tetrazzini, but only at first; they quickly grew tired of them. On the other hand, mundane foods like white bread would never get them too excited, but they could eat lots and lots of it without feeling they’d had enough.
The writer went back to commenting on his subject:
Moskowitz’s data […] is tremendously fine-grained, showing how different people and groups of people feel about a strong vanilla taste versus weak, various aspects of aroma and the powerful sensory force that food scientists call “mouth feel.”
The researcher also specialized in every other possible oral sensation, including dryness, gumminess, and moisture release. Then, there is weird stuff in people’s heads. They love Dr Pepper’s distinctive flavor, for instance, but too much of it colors the drink a little darker, and that seems to be off-putting. All this is related to sensory-specific satiety — “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.
Let’s not forget to give Moskowitz the credit for discovering the “bliss point” — the proportion of sugar in any recipe, at which the consumer will start saying “yech.” He showed the reporter how his computer compiles every possible combination of variables in a product, and from that information, devises precise experimental batches. Then, focus groups of humans are recruited to taste the range of offerings.
Of course, not everything that can be done should be done. Human oversight is necessary to prevent the creation of a formula that is 80% salt, for example. Moscowitz engineered Prego spaghetti sauce into a stellar market position by loading it up with plenty of salt, and so much sugar, a person might as well just go ahead and serve Oreos instead.
Your responses and feedback are welcome!
Source: “The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food,” NYTimes.com, 02/20/13
Image by Andrew Dobos/CC BY 2.0