Potato Chips

Junk Food Designed to be Unhealthy And Addictive

Engineering Salt, Sugar and Fat to Create Food Addiction

“Today, one in three adults is considered clinically obese, along with one in five kids, and 24 million Americans are afflicted by type 2 diabetes, often caused by poor diet, with another 79 million people having pre-diabetes. Even gout, a painful form of arthritis once known as “the rich man’s disease” for its associations with gluttony, now afflicts eight million Americans.”
-Michael Moss in The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food

How did we reach this stage of poor health as a nation? The answer may surprise and anger you. As with most complex issues, the answer is not as simple as many talking heads in the media and nightly news would have us believe. It isn’t just a matter of willpower, or knowledge, or education, or alternatives to the junk food that is, quite literally, killing us. The answer is far deeper, wider reaching and more sinister.

Most processed foods these days are “optimized”, or engineered for better sensory perceptions that drive us to eat more. These sensory perceptions include but are not limited to the physical appearance, packaging, shape, mouth feel, taste and array of flavors, aftertaste, smell and satisfaction of a food. One of the most important factors that are considered is the strength of the urge for a second bite, sip or swallow, or a third.

Everyday people spend hours in tasting rooms where they touch, feel, sip, smell, swirl and taste whatever product is being optimized. Their opinions are fed through a very sophisticated program that not only produces an optimized formulation for the food in question, but also addresses marketing concerns such as colors and packaging. All of this is done to gain more “stomach share”- the amount of processed food that a consumer will eat from a certain company. These are not small concerns in an industry that measures stomach share in the billions of dollars annually.

The Holy Grail for food companies is what is termed the “bliss point”, that spot where consumers like a product the most, but are not satisfied enough with the flavor combination to stop eating it. Foods and drinks cannot be too flavorful, as consumers quickly get bored with them. The brain is quickly overwhelmed with big, intense and distinct flavors and shuts down the “want more” portion, thus stopping eating.

This has become one of the major guiding principles of the processed food industry. The biggest players owe their success to very complex and secret formulas that pique the taste buds but don’t have a distinct, intense flavor that shuts down the desire for more. This is the science of engineering addictive junk food at its most focused and intense.

For example, Frito-Lay employs about 500 chemists, psychologists and technicians to conduct research that cost up to $30 million a year that focuses on questions of crunch, mouth feel and aroma for each of their product lines. One of their tools simulates a chewing mouth to test and perfect their chips, like the perfect “break point”; people crave chips that crunch at about four pounds of pressure per square inch. You just can’t make stuff like this up!

With market shares reaching multiple billions of dollars, highly aggressive marketing tactics such as Coca-Cola make twisted sense. Their goal was simple; outsell every other beverage that people drink, including milk and water! From this goal they developed one question for the marketing division – “How can we drive more ounces into more bodies more often?” This explains the door-to-door sales of Coke to Brazilians living in slums and frontier shanty-towns.

With all of this high technology, psychological and physiological research running into hundreds of millions of dollars, strategic placements and extremely focused marketing campaigns all supporting highly addictive processed foods, what chance do we as everyday people have?

Somewhat surprisingly, we actually have a pretty good chance. Alternative research has shown that people can “recover” from their junk food addictions simply by abstaining from them for a period of time. Eating normal meals, eliminating or restricting snacking on junk food, or replacing that food with real, healthy food recalibrates our taste buds. Skipping meals is one of the leading causes of increased junk food intake, not by desire but simply because of convenience. Snacking on fresh vegetables such as carrots, apple slices, celery or such that provides the crunch that we have come to desire helps ease us out of the salt/sugar/fat cravings and into appreciation of new tastes and flavors that have been lost as we overload our taste buds with junk processed foods. The brain has a chance to realize that the food being eaten has nutritional content and can once again establish a reasonable signal of when the stomach is “full”. It is no longer tricked into over-eating multiple times a day.

Once a recovery period of a couple of weeks to a month had been established, most people found the tastes of the same junk food they previously had highly enjoyed were too salty, fatty or sweet and lacked the real flavors that they had re-discovered and come to appreciate. They also had pleasant side effects of increased concentration, higher energy that lasted throughout the day, decreased weight, blood pressure and headaches, among many others.

The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food – NYTimes.com

3 replies
  1. Larry Stewart
    Larry Stewart says:

    A great article. It provides some insight into what food companies do and what makes them successful plus giving some direction as to how an individual can minimize the impact of the junk foods.

    Having said that, we have to realize corporations are in business to make money not to save the world or save people from themselves. it is up to each of us to be responsible for our own actions. it is not Frito-Lay nor any other company’s responsibility to keep us on the straight and narrow.

    • Stephen
      Stephen says:

      Larry, you are right on the money! Personal responsibility is something that has largely been lost in the past 30+ years, gradually at first and then more rapidly. No corporation is physically forcing any one of us to eat their offerings, despite some of the highest engineered and most cleverly marketed products available. All of us have the choice of what to eat.

      As the saying goes – if you keep healthy food in the house, you will eat healthy food! The only person any one of us can be responsible for is ourselves. Accepting that responsibility and taking control of that small gap between stimulus and response is the only thing we control. But it is enough!


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  1. […] How did this come about and what can we do about it? As with many complex issues, the history and back-story make for intriguing reading and the solution is not as simple as some would have us believe. For the solution that is achievable by each of us, read Junk Food Designed to be Unhealthy and Addictive! […]

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