Measuring your mouth’s bliss- NY Times on the Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food

The New York Times printed an article yesterday titled The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food. It was a fascinating read.  Most of us know the evils of processed food and if you’ve caught wind of news, documentaries or general conversation we know how much time and money food companies burn through to make us buy their products.

The article goes back some 15 years, when I first became conscious of news stories showing close up shots of faceless heavyset people walking on the streets, through the evolving sophistication of the food industry to market highly processed foods to us. We’ve all known that Americans and now a large population worldwide eat way too many salty, sugary, fatty foods in quantities that are making us sicker every year. Even knowing how bad this stuff is for us, year after year statistics show obesity and illnesses linked to being overweight keep going up while Americans spend $150 million dollars a year on weight loss products. This article goes into some detail about the conscious effort of food companies- through marketing, scientific studies and product testing- to get us to consume more processed foods by finding the right balance of fat, salt, sugar, convenience and happiness. All while maximizing profits and presenting an image of social conscience to the public outcries of noxiously addictive junk food.

What is the secret formula? They make the food cheap, convenient and most importantly it has to make you feel happy. There are actual standardized emotional benchmarks to determine when a product’s mixture of these three ingredients (sugar, salt and/or fat) are at their most attractive, referred to as a ‘bliss’ point.

“The biggest hits_ be they Coca Cola or Doritos- owe their success to complex formulas the pique the taste buds enough to be alluring but don’t have  a distinct overriding single flavor that tells the brain to stop eating.”

Convenience is a huge factor in our addiction to junk food that is thoroughly researched and marketed. Such is the case with Oscar Mayer and the advent of Lunchables that were first advertised as a convenient prepackaged meal for busy moms scrunched for time and often overwhelmed with morning chaos to prepare a meal. Following the roaring success of this product’s launch Oscar Mayer found a new way to push more Lunchables by heavily marketing to kids directly touting the idea that they could have control over what they chose to eat with taglines like “Lunchtime is all yours” consequently growing their product from bologna, ‘cheese product’ and crackers to include additions such as Snickers, M&Ms, Kool-Aid and lots of high fructose items to children’s diet.

Did you know that Frito-Lay designs their potato chips to snap with about four pounds of pressure per square inch? This gives the chips an optimum crunch that is most appealing to the millions of people who ubiquitously incorporate chips to nearly a fifth of their meals and snacks, at least that’s the goal. They’ve also found ways to maintain the salty flavor of chips we love with ‘designer sodium’ so they can label a product “less salt” for the purpose of reducing our guilt for eating the chips, consequently encouraging us to eat more chips.

I could go on but it’s better if you take the time to read it. What struck me the most was how overwhelming all this research implementation and marketing is to our mind. I mean, how can an 8 year old’s brain compete with the high that comes with the huge amounts of sugar and salt in a Dr. Pepper or Lunchables and then be advertised how much happier you will be when you buy more of it? Or parents with multiple kids that need attention and are on a budget being told this product is not only a readily available meal but they can treat it as a gift to their kids (you will make them so happy!). They also make them cheap! There are times when I only have $5 in my pocket for a day’s meals. I could go to AMPM and get enough junk food to get me snacking through breakfast AND lunch. The convenience of it all is so hard to resist, and it’s done on purpose. It almost feels like we’re being taken advantage of.

This isn’t to say that we are less culpable of what food choices we make. All the providers of our favorite vices, be they junk food, alcohol, tobacco, etc, express that they don’t put a gun to our heads to buy their products, they’re just giving us what we want, in the amount we demand. In one aspect that is true, but the way in which the essentially create that demand for them to fill is subtle and very hard to pinpoint and sheer focus and intent behind their marketing and design creates some form of guilt on their part.

Again, this is not to say we are any less responsible for what we consume. In fact, being aware of this ongoing trend should make us even more accountable for our choices because we know better. Whenever I’m walking down the grocery store isle, especially in the frozen foods department I can’ help but look at the packaging of the products and not think how every single aspect of a product, from the packaging design and colors to the chemical composition and flavor, are created with fine detail to make me want to buy it and then crave to consume more. To me it feels like an effort to exploit my hunger, current lack of will, money or time at the moment and that just upsets me. That also helps because I’ll then avoid that section all together along with the juice isle conveniently adjacent to the cereal and baked goods section; just skip that whole part of the store.

I learned in Fit in 42  that the general rule of thumb when choosing what you eat is to pick the foods that has had the least amount of hands on it. This way you have more control over the amount of salts, fats and sugars you eat and it lets your body become accustomed to less processed and often more filling and nutritious meals.

I’m thinking about doing a weeklong blogging challenge to forego any processed foods and create meals as close to the “earth to mouth” concept as possible. It would be an interesting project that would let me see where my food is coming from, how many steps something as simple as an apple goes through, research more on nutrition and force me to cook (which I’m not great at). It’s just a thought now but I’ll flesh out the concept more later. Until then, EAT CLEAN!


UPDATE: One of my trainers from Fit in 42, Casey, gave me an excellent new standard that’s pretty straightforward and easy to apply for choosing clean foods.

“A good rule of thumb is, don’t eat anything that has a commercial.”

Moss, Michael. “The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food.” The New York Times. N.p., 20 Feb. 2013. Web. Feb. 2013

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