The Science of Addictive Junk Food

The Science of Addictive Junk Food

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We are under attack. Rarely am I sensational or histrionic, and I eschew writers who inflame passions simply to make a point or to sell stories.  Let the information speak for itself and let readers draw their own conclusions.  But in this case I cannot sit back quietly as I write this.

For years, the commercial food industry has been quietly waging a concerted campaign of nutritional assault on Americans, doggedly pursuing a conscious effort—taking place in labs and marketing meetings and grocery-store aisles—to get people hooked on foods that are convenient and inexpensive, all in the pursuit of an ever-growing portion (pardon the pun) of market share.

The Game Changer

How do they do this?  Enter food-industry legend, Howard Moskowitz.  Moskowitz, who studied mathematics and holds a Ph.D. in experimental psychology from Harvard, runs a consulting firm in White Plains, New York, where for more than three decades he has “optimized” a variety of products for Campbell Soup, General Foods, Kraft, and PepsiCo. “I’ve optimized soups.  I’ve optimized pizzas. I’ve optimized salad dressings and pickles. In this field, I’m a game changer.”  And his work is changing the face—and shape and health—of America.

Let’s face it.  While the readers of Natural Nutmeg may be an exception, most of us tend to buy what tastes good, more than we buy what’s good for us.  And the food company executives know this.  At a meeting of CEOs of several major food companies, on April 8, 1999 at the headquarters of Pillsbury, General Mills CEO Stephen Sanger is alleged to have quipped, “Don’t talk to me about nutrition.  Talk to me about taste, and if this stuff tastes better, don’t run around trying to sell stuff that doesn’t taste good.”  Most often people will buy what they like, and they like what tastes good.

But how do companies make products that appeal to our tastes?  And, more insidiously, how can companies alter our tastes to make us like what they produce?

Product Optimization

In the process of product optimization, food engineers alter a litany of variables with the sole intent of finding the most attractive version (or versions) of a product.  Ordinary consumers are paid to spend hours sitting in rooms where they touch, feel, sip, smell, swirl and taste whatever product is in question.  Their opinions are dumped into a computer, and the data are sifted and sorted to determine what features will be most attractive to consumers.

According to Moskowitz, imagine this computer is divided into silos, in which each of the attributes is stacked.  But it’s not simply a matter of, say, comparing Color 23 with Color 24.  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.  “The mathematical model maps-out the ingredients to the sensory perceptions these ingredients create,” he claims, “so I can just dial a new product. This is the engineering approach.”

At the simplest level, Moskowitz’s work is similar to that of any market-research specialist who conducts focus groups to determine what consumers prefer.  A classic example is his transformation of the spaghetti sauce industry.

Spaghetti Sauce

Moskowitz learned that people who like spaghetti sauce fall into one of three categories:  those who like their spaghetti sauce plain; those who like it spicy; and those who like it extra-chunky.  Of these three, the third one was the most significant, because at the time, in the early 1980s, supermarkets did not offer extra-chunky spaghetti sauce.  Campbell’s (the company of soup fame, which had hired Howard to help with their Prego sauce) turned to him and said, ‘Are you telling us that one-third of Americans crave extra-chunky spaghetti sauce, and yet no one is servicing their needs?’  And he said, ‘Yes.’  And Prego then went back and completely reformulated their spaghetti sauce and came out with a line of extra-chunky sauce that immediately and completely took over the spaghetti-sauce business in this country.

As author Michael Moss put it, “That is Howard’s gift to the American people. . . . He fundamentally changed the way the food industry thinks about making you happy.”

It Started with Sugar

However, there is more to the story than simply identifying preferences and meeting those demands.  The food industry already knew some things about making people happy, and it started with sugar.

Many of the Prego spaghetti sauces, for example—whether cheesy, chunky or light—have one feature in common: The largest ingredient, after tomatoes, is sugar.  A mere half-cup of Prego Traditional, for instance, has the equivalent of more than two teaspoons of sugar, as much as two-plus Oreo cookies.  It also delivers one-third of the sodium recommended for a majority of American adults for an entire day.

In making these sauces, Campbell supplied the ingredients, including the salt, sugar and, for some versions, fat, while Moskowitz supplied the optimization.  “More is not necessarily better,” Moskowitz wrote in his own account of the Prego project.  “As the sensory intensity (say, of sweetness) increases, consumers first say that they like the product more, but eventually, with a middle level of sweetness, consumers like the product the most (this is their optimum, or ‘bliss,’ point).”

Moskowitz’s career actually began with work for the military.  Soldiers in the field would quickly grow weary of their MREs (meals ready-to-eat), and often would discard them, half-eaten.  This resulted in progressively inadequate calorie intake and nutrition—not a good thing for a fighting force!  (Recall Napoleon Bonaparte’s famous quote, “An army marches on its stomach.”)

As he queried the soldiers, Moskowitz learned that “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.”

This contradiction is known as “sensory-specific satiety.”  Simply put, it is 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—whether it’s Coca-Cola or Doritos—owe their success to complex formulas that tickle the taste buds enough to be alluring but don’t have a distinct, overriding single flavor that tells the brain to stop eating.

The Perfect Snack Food

A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2011 looked at weight gain of 120,877 women and men—all professionals in the health field, and likely to be more conscious about nutrition.  Using data dating back to 1986, the researchers monitored everything the participants ate, as well as their physical activity and smoking. They found that every four years, the participants exercised less, watched TV more and gained an average of 3.35 pounds.

Potato Chips

By far the largest weight-inducing food was the potato chip.  The coating of salt, the fat content that rewards the brain with instant feelings of pleasure, the sugar that exists not as an additive but in the starch of the potato itself—all of this combines to make it the perfect addictive food.  The starch in the potato is rapidly absorbed and causes a spike in blood sugar levels, resulting in a craving for more chips—and a growing girth.


According to Steven Witherly, a food scientist who wrote a guide for industry insiders titled, “Why Humans Like Junk Food,” Cheetos represents a perfect junk food. “This,” Witherly said, holding up a bag, “is one of the most marvelously constructed foods on the planet, in terms of pure pleasure.”  While he enumerates a number of attributes of the Cheetos that make the brain say “more,” the one he focused on most was the puff’s uncanny ability to melt in the mouth.  “It’s called vanishing caloric density,” Witherly claimed.  “If something melts down quickly, your brain thinks that there’s no calories in it (sic) . . . you can just keep eating it forever.”

So what the food industry is doing on a constant basis is striving diligently to create foods that appeal unceasingly to our tastes, while engineering-in traits that trick our brains into wanting more.  For example, it is now known that sugar targets the same reward centers in the brain that opioids target.  Remember the famed potato chip phrase, “No one can eat just one.”  That’s by design.  In 1905 the average North American consumed a mere 5 pounds of sugar per person per year.  By 2009 that figure had skyrocketed to 130 to 150 pounds per person per year!

Bob Drane was Oscar Mayer’s vice president for new business development and strategy in the 1980s.  He has since retired, and harbors some guilt over his role in developing the highly successful (and nutritionally devastating) line of Lunchables products. Drane recently addressed a group of medical students at the University of Wisconsin.  “What do University of Wisconsin MBAs learn about how to succeed in marketing?” his presentation to the med students asks.  “Discover what consumers want to buy and give it to them with both barrels.  Sell more, keep your job! How do marketers often translate these ‘rules’ into action on food?  Our brains love sugar, fat, salt. . . . so formulate products to deliver these.  Perhaps add some low-cost ingredients to boost profit margins.  Then supersize to sell more. . . . And advertise/promote to lock in heavy users.

Appealing to Conscience

It’s not just about the actual ingredients.  It’s also about engineering the psychology of eating.

According to a 1957 report for Frito-Lay by a psychologist named Ernest Dichter, “unconsciously, people expect to be punished for ‘letting themselves go’ and enjoying themselves.”  Dichter listed seven ‘fears and resistances’ to the chips: “You can’t stop eating them; they’re fattening; they’re not good for you; they’re greasy and messy to eat; they’re too expensive; it’s hard to store the leftovers; and they’re bad for children.”

Dichter suggested that Frito-Lay avoid using the word ‘fried’ when referring to its chips and adopt instead the more healthful-sounding term ‘toasted.’ To counteract the “fear of letting oneself go,” he suggested repacking the chips into smaller bags. “The more-anxious consumers, the ones who have the deepest fears about their capacity to control their appetite, will tend to sense the function of the new pack and select it,” he said.

Dichter also advised Frito-Lay to move its chips out of the realm of between-meals snacking and turn them into an ever-present item in the American diet. “The increased use of potato chips and other Lay’s products as a part of the regular fare served by restaurants and sandwich bars should be encouraged in a concentrated way,” Dichter said, citing a string of examples: “potato chips with soup, with fruit or vegetable juice appetizers; potato chips served as a vegetable on the main dish; potato chips with salad; potato chips with egg dishes for breakfast; potato chips with sandwich orders.”

Low Fat/Fat-Free

Of course, the psychology of eating doesn’t stop there.  In our current fat-conscious environment, consumers flock to the low-fat and fat-free products, with companies all too eager to oblige.  The problem is that, when you remove fat from the food, the taste and texture plummets.  So how to make low-fat and fat-free foods taste good?  Simple:  add sugar!  The unsuspecting public, thinking that fat-free is good for you (due, in part, to constant misguided advice from the medical and nutritional establishments), now feels psychologically unencumbered and actually eats more of the food.  Knowing the addictive nature of sugar (along with the almost invariably added salt), our brains and bodies crave even more.


A perfect example of this is yogurt.  General Mills has overtaken not just the cereal aisle but other sections of the grocery store.  The company’s Yoplait brand transformed traditional unsweetened breakfast yogurt into a veritable dessert.  It has twice as much sugar per serving as General Mills’ marshmallow cereal Lucky Charms.  And yet, because of yogurt’s well-tended image as a wholesome snack, sales of Yoplait have skyrocketed, with annual revenue topping $500 million.  Emboldened by the success, the company’s development wing pushed even harder, inventing a Yoplait variation that came in a squeezable tube—perfect for kids. They called it Go-Gurt and rolled it out nationally; sales have since soared over $100 million.  In a move known as ‘line extension,’ manufacturers have further transformed the otherwise healthy food (plain yogurt) into a nutritional nightmare by adding granola topping in a separate packet on top of the packaging—more sugar, more crunch, more “bliss point.”


Then consider the packaging.  For example, have you ever noticed how many items of junk food boldly proclaim “A cholesterol-free food!” on the label?  Of course, the dirty secret is that 80% of the cholesterol in our bodies is actually made inside the body; diet contributes only 20%.  (Anyone who has tried to lower his or her cholesterol by diet alone knows how painstakingly inefficient this approach is.)  The cholesterol-free seal is intended to appeal to our conscience, allowing us to eat more (more fat, more sugar, more salt, etc.)

Fighting Back

I freely admit that I’m a conscientious capitalist.  I firmly believe in the free market.  Markets breed competition, and competition begets more choices and lower prices.  The bottom line, however, is that we DO have the ability to choose what to toss in our shopping carts and what to pour down our gullets.  And those choices can influence retailers.  Food companies are beholden to shareholders.  If there is a profit to be made by selling healthy food they will flock to it.  But that will only happen if consumers demand it by decreasing their purchases of the junk.

To wit, high fructose corn syrup sales are down nationally by 30%.  Consumers are waking up, becoming educated, and voting with their purses.  As a result, a growing number of products are becoming available that boldly claim “No high fructose corn syrup” on the label.  (Hunts has removed HFCS from all of its products.)

As consumers begin to return fire in the nutritional battle, more healthy products will find their way to store shelves.  In the meantime, forewarned is forearmed.


Dr. Tortland is a board certified sports medicine physician with a special interest in preventive and age management medicine.  His practice, Valley Sports Physicians, is located in Avon and Glastonbury.  Visit his web site, www.jockdoctors.com.

This story is adapted, with permission, from Michael Moss’ article in the New York Times, February 20, 2013, “The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food.”