There’s a good reason you can’t eat just one potato chip.
No addictive drug ignites the reward circuitry in our brains as quickly and intensely as our favorite foods, explains Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Michael Moss. And Big Food has made a science of this, hooking Americans on the “bliss point” of sugar, “flavor burst” of salt, and “mouthfeel” of fat, to use industry parlance. The result, he says, is a love affair with fast food and processed food that has become an addiction.
In his latest book, Hooked: Food, Free Will, and How the Food Giants Exploit Our Addictions, Moss compares food cravings with compulsions for nicotine and heroin. The reason we can’t stop at just one potato chip is because those food addictions are even stronger — and Big Food knows it. In fact, their business model craftily caters to “craveability,” “snackability,” and “more-ishness.”
“One hallmark of addiction is the speed with which substances hit the brain, and this puts the term ‘fast food’ in a new light,” he writes. “Measured in milliseconds, and the power to addict, nothing is faster than processed food in rousing the brain.”
We spoke with Moss about his research.
Experience Life | You write that Big Food is fighting to maximize its “share of stomach” — industry slang for market share — by hooking Americans on sugar, salt, and fat, leading to food addictions. What are the bottom-line effects?
Michael Moss | The trouble Big Food causes us lands on a spectrum. Some people experience cravings that cause them to lose control, as in binge eating. For others, it’s a more subtle loss of control that sneaks up on them and leads to overeating day after day.
A crude, albeit stunning, measure of this is the clinical obesity rate that shot past 42 percent even before the pandemic. Still others are just feeling the loss of the ritual and beauty of home-cooked meals shared with family and friends that we lost when we fell so hard for convenience foods.
EL | You compare food addiction to nicotine addiction. Most Americans no longer smoke cigarettes: What would it take to wean us off fast foods and processed foods?
MM | There is some guidance to be drawn from other addictive substances, experts tell me, whether cigarettes, alcohol, drugs, or things like smartphones. For some people, abstinence — avoiding the foods that cause them to lose control — is a reasonable strategy. Others can head off a craving by anticipating it: For example, get up and stretch, call a friend, try eating something better, like a handful of nuts.
And more long term, changing how we value food rather than letting the companies tell us what to value in food. For example, looking at pastries and thinking not just how yummy they’ll taste, but how they may affect your heart two years hence.
EL | Can you explain Big Food’s seemingly contrary motives starting in the 1970s of buying up diet companies and health-food makers?
MM | These are just additional revenue streams to the companies. Their involvement in the dieting industry has tapered off in the last few years as more people grow disillusioned with even the best methods aimed at helping one to lose weight.
The newest strategy by Big Food is to “help us” deal with our overeating of its products by changing the formulas to add some “anticraving elements” like protein or more fiber to its products. But I refer to this as “health washing” because these fixes don’t really change the nature of their products that are otherwise still loaded with salt, sugar, and fat.
The Surprising Genesis of Food Nutrition Labels
The convoluted debut of the now-common nutrition labels on our food began with Big Food manufacturers as a way to control the information disseminated to consumers— and shield from consumers elements of processed food that were known health concerns. In this excerpt from Hooked: Food, Free Will, and How the Food Giants Exploit Our Addictions, Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Michael Moss shines a light on the mechanisms behind the scene that gave rise to the modern labels.
Before World War II, we mostly prepared what were, by and large, whole foods: grains, vegetables, meats. That changed with our turn toward convenience and snacking, so that today, the food manufacturers thoroughly dominate what, and how, we eat. A first-of-its-kind survey of household purchases, released in 2015, put some startling numbers to this. Three-fourths of the groceries we buy, as measured in calories, are now processed, with most of this classified as highly processed food. These are industrial mixes and formulations in which the ingredients have been altered to the point that the original plant or animal source is no longer recognizable. They’re also so highly convenient that most of these groceries are ready to eat (68 percent) or ready to heat (15 percent), with salt, sugar, and fat in amounts that outpace what we’d ever put into our own recipes.
There was one glitch in the industry’s rise to power, but this turned out to be a huge boon for the companies. We love information, you’ll recall from the work of a University of Southern California professor. This seems instinctual on our part. He dubbed us the infovores, documenting how our brain gets aroused by information for information’s sake and how the food companies have learned to exploit this.
As recently as the 1960s, it was enough for the companies to present us with information that was purely a sales pitch. We saw the processed food industry almost exclusively as our friend. The companies could seemingly say, or imply, anything about their products and we would believe them. Indeed, we turned to them not just for convenience, but also for vitamins and other essential nutrients that many of us fell short of through eating habits that were constrained by poverty or nutritional indifference. We wanted the companies to do this heavy lifting on our behalf.
But starting that decade, we began to have other feelings about processed food when critics began questioning other aspects of its nature. We started to worry about the way the industry was engineering its products for taste, texture, and color at the expense of purity and wholesomeness. Our worrier in chief at that time, Ralph Nader, made the cover of Time magazine with a string of hot dogs in 1969 when he turned his consumer activism toward food, focusing initially on processed meat. In an earlier essay, he had evoked the work of the slaughterhouse muckraker Upton Sinclair and the environmentalist Rachel Carson in raising new alarms about processed food. “It took some doing to cover up meats from tubercular cows, lump-jawed steers and scabby pigs in the old days,” he wrote. “Now the wonders of chemistry and quick-freezing techniques provide the cosmetics for camouflaging the products and deceiving the eyes, nostrils and taste buds of the consumer. It takes specialists to detect the deception. What is more, these chemicals themselves introduce new and complicated hazards unheard of sixty years ago.”
Just months later, in 1970, the Food and Drug Administration suggested to the manufacturers that they address our concerns by providing more information about their products on their package labels. One might think that this move on the part of the federal government would set off alarm bells inside the processed food industry, which strives to keep so many aspects of its products and processes a secret. But there was nothing of the sort. The industry welcomed these new labels with open arms. And why not? It was the industry’s own idea.
The genesis for having more information on food packages was a 1969 White House conference on food where a panel led by a vice president of Monsanto, the food ingredients manufacturer, made nutrition labeling part of its recommendations. The panel also included a food industry lawyer named Peter Hutt, who went on, in 1971, to become the chief counsel for the FDA, where he oversaw the advent of nutrition labeling.
The FDA didn’t actually require this disclosure for another two decades, but it didn’t even have to. By the 1990s, the food manufacturers were voluntarily putting loads of information about the nutrition of their products on a majority of the packaged food they sold. In comments to the FDA in 1990, the snacks giant Frito-Lay affirmed the whole industry’s enthusiasm by saying the company “has a demonstrated record of sensitivity to the needs and concerns of its consumers and has a direct interest in, and responsibility for, the informative and meaningful labeling of food products relative to the nutritional interests and needs of consumers. We support a policy of providing sound nutrition information to the American public.”
Why such gusto for revealing corporate secrets? For starters, the processed food industry had won lots of concessions. In return for its cooperation on the new labeling, the FDA agreed to stop making food manufacturers put the word imitation on their package fronts, which had been a real threat to sales. The agency had been doing this to help us avoid getting tricked into misspending our money; dairy products that used vegetable oils to lessen their loads of saturated fat were getting the brunt of this policy, but who knew how far this could spread if the concern about trickery was applied more broadly to processed food?
The industry got another reprieve in the feature of package labeling where ingredients are listed. It got to leave lots of things out of this disclosure. These included the chemical compounds it uses in flavorings—like those eighty components of pumpkin spice—and a multitude of substances that are used mainly as aids in the process of making the food and show up in the final product either not at all or in minute quantities.
In general, the industry has been able to count on the FDA to pull its punches on additives. This happened most recently with genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, in which the genetic makeup of processed food industry staples like corn and soybeans is altered. Concerned consumers who want the food companies to say on their labels when they use GMOs have gotten nowhere with the FDA, and in 2013 they felt compelled to turn to state ballots to effect change.
When a measure requiring the disclosure of GMOs got on Washington State’s ballot that year, a trade association funneled $11 million from thirty-four food companies, led by PepsiCo, Nestlé, and Coca-Cola, to defeat the measure. Only later did the state discover that the trade group never registered as a political committee or filed the required reports on its funding sources, and at trial for breaking the law, it was fined $18 million—not a bad price for quashing a ballot box revolt that could have spread nationwide.
But the biggest help the food industry got from the FDA regarding the new package disclosures was the agency’s own confusion on just what problem it was hoping to solve. Starting back in the 1930s, the government worried that many of us were malnourished from eating too little, and hunger remains a problem today. But increasingly, the concern has turned to the many more of us who are malnourished from eating too much of the wrong things. We’re getting enough calories, but they’re devoid of the nutrients and fiber we need to be healthy, and thus the host of conditions from type 2 diabetes to gout to cardiovascular disease that are tied to poor eating habits. Or we’re getting too many calories altogether: With obesity pushing past 40 percent, gambling on processed food was no longer a roll of the dice; it was more like the flip of a coin.
Yet the FDA couldn’t decide if the labels on packaged food should goad us into eating more so that we’d be sure to get all of the nutrients we need to be healthy, like thiamin, or if they should warn us about getting too much of those other additives, like sugar, that can lead to malnourishment because they cause us to lose control of our eating. You can guess the result. The labels we see on our groceries today do neither.
We can use PepsiCo’s Cotton Candy Crunch cereal as a typical example. The back of the box is all games, vibrantly colored and reinforcing the brand: “Can you spell at least 8 words with the letters in cotton candy?” An equally colorful side panel is devoted to following “the Cap’n” on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. No child is going to turn to the other side panel where the “Nutrition Facts” are presented in tiny black-and-white print.
But if adults take a look, they’ll find what they might view as a nightmare of nonsense and misdirection. There are twenty-three rows of numbers, expressed either as g’s for grams (quick, how many grams in an ounce?) or as percentages of something called DV. The latter, a footnote says, stands for “daily value” and “tells you how much a nutrient in a serving of food contributes to a daily diet.” But is that should contribute, or shouldn’t?
The FDA, in its ambivalence, doesn’t say. Half of the rows of numbers are for things like niacin and vitamin D, which we used to have to worry about getting enough of when we ate too little. The rest are for things that we should worry about now because we’re getting too much, but you have to already know that. The label gives you no clue that eating too much sugar, for example, is linked to heart disease and other health concerns.
You do get a number, and thanks to all the sugar that PepsiCo puts in this cereal, this number is huge. The DV for sugar in the Cotton Candy Crunch is 29 percent, it says, which if you follow nutrition closely, you might take correctly to mean that the cereal is giving you roughly one-third of all the sugar you should have in an entire day. But another boon to the industry in this labeling is the factor called serving size. The DV of 29 percent for sugar, and the rest of the nutritional facts, is for one serving of the cereal, and throughout the grocery store, what the FDA agrees to call a serving is substantially smaller than what many of us will actually eat.
For this candy-sweet cereal, one serving is listed as one and one-quarter cups. Try dribbling just one-and-one-quarter cups in a bowl for your kid and watch as they grab the box for more. More likely, you won’t watch because you’re getting ready for work and you’ve abdicated this watching to the industry.
There’s one other trick that these labels play. The largest and boldest lettering goes to the product’s fuel, or the number of calories in that serving. Which is kind of helpful for those who believe that our weight is a simple matter of how many calories we take in and expend. But nutrition is not so simple. And even if it was, who among us even knows how many calories they eat, or should eat, in a day to know if those calories in that serving of processed food is good or bad?
You’d need to be keeping a food diary, and have data on your unique physiology and lifestyle, to get anything meaningful out of these calorie counts. And without that data, the 150 calories in a serving of very sugary Cotton Candy Crunch might seem to be perfectly fine.
The FDA and the industry knew better than to portray the nutrition facts as a tool we could use to regain control over our food. In 1990, the Institute of Medicine, with help from a processed food industry group, prepared a report as guidance to the FDA on the pending labeling rules and included the testimony of experts who pointed out that “consumers do not understand many of the terms now used on food labels, for example, the scientific terms for nutrients or food components or the metric units used to indicate nutrient compositions. In addition, the concept of serving size has no consistent meaning, either for food manufacturers or consumers.”
The shortfalls of the nutrition facts became even more apparent as time went on. A federal survey in 2008 found that the number of people who even bothered to look at this information had declined to where only one in three of us did so with any regularity. And yet, for the companies, the nutrition facts have been a marketing boon. Back in 1990, the same Institute of Medicine report divulged why the food industry was so enthusiastic about nutrition facts. “From a general marketing standpoint, it is readily apparent that nutrition ‘sells’ food to today’s consumer, and it has become an integral part of product development and marketing strategies,” the report said.
A decade later, Philip Morris, through its ownership of Kraft, was framing the information on package labels as a bone that the industry would gladly toss our way. In a strategy paper titled “Lessons from the Tobacco Wars,” the tobacco and food giant said, “Does Kraft want Americans to get fat? Of course not. Does Kraft support fat- and calorie-labeling in the United States? Absolutely. If consumers want to know more about what they’re buying, we’ll provide it. Our goal is to satisfy our consumers’ preferences. We make low-fat products to meet people’s changing tastes. Why not make high-info packaging if consumers want it?”
When we worry about what’s in our food, the companies feed us information that we find reassuring. Or, if not reassuring, so baffling that we would just shrug and assume the government figured things out for us.
Critics have coined a term for the danger in paying too much attention to the nutrition in processed food. They call this nutritionism, and in a 2013 book by that name, Gyorgy Scrinis, an associate professor of food politics and policy at the University of Melbourne, Australia, argues that the nutrition facts on packaged food can be part of a larger problem for us when it comes to solving the problem of overeating. The focus on nutrients has distorted our view of food so that even highly processed foods can be perceived as healthy depending on which and how much of their nutrients are deemed “good” or “bad.”
It also paved the way for the companies to juggle their additives to address and suppress our specific fears.
To cite just one example, the sweetener known as high-fructose corn syrup rose to the top of our food concerns in the early 2000s, thanks in part to the competitive marketing by sugarcane growers that suggested their sugar is better for us. Which it isn’t, but we shunned the corn syrup anyway, and the food manufacturers responded with ease. They simply dropped the corn syrup from their formulations—and their labels—and switched to using sugar derived from sugarcane or concentrated fruit juice, or whichever kind of sugar sounded better to us. When we caught on to that, they reduced the amount of sugar they added altogether, but maintained the appeal of the product by bumping up the salt or fat. Until we started worrying about the salt or fat. And so it continues. We fret, they fiddle, and we eat more of their product.
Excerpt provided by Penguin Random House copyright @2021 by Michael Moss.