Monday kickoff: How food giants get you addicted to junk food

These lunchables, at a supermarket in Potsdam, already have high sugar, fat, and salt content. But they still come with a packet of Skittles or Butterfinger candies to boot. Photo: David Sommerstein.

UPDATE: If you want to know more, Terry Gross interviewed author Michael Moss on Fresh Air yesterday.

Each Monday morning here on The Dirt, we spotlight a new idea, a new website, a new tweeter doing interesting things to get your juices flowing for the week.  Today, a must-read book for anyone who cares about the obesity epidemic, junk food advertising to children, and their family's health.

Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Michael Moss gave us a long-read glimpse into his new book, Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us in Sunday's New York Times magazine.  It's an extraordinary investigation into how America's largest food conglomerates used science, legions of focus groups, and billions of dollars in advertising to hook us on food that is quite terrible, and often dangerous, for us.

The leaders of companies like Coca-Cola, Kraft, and Mars speak with amazing candor at times, like in this passage with the inventor of Phillip Morris' "Lunchable" snacks, aimed at the children of busy mothers.  A former CEO said about Lunchables "the most healthy item in it is the napkin."

Monica Drane had three of her own children by the time we spoke, ages 10, 14 and 17. “I don’t think my kids have ever eaten a Lunchable,” she told me. “They know they exist and that Grandpa Bob invented them. But we eat very healthfully.”

Drane himself paused only briefly when I asked him if, looking back, he was proud of creating the trays. “Lots of things are trade-offs,” he said. “And I do believe it’s easy to rationalize anything. In the end, I wish that the nutritional profile of the thing could have been better, but I don’t view the entire project as anything but a positive contribution to people’s lives.”

Of course, the reality that a lot of processed foods are bad for you and fuel our obesity epidemic is not new.  But Moss digs deep into the machine that spends billions to find what they call "the bliss point" – the perfect mix of fat, salt, and sugar, crunch, chewiness, and flavor:

Frito-Lay had a formidable research complex near Dallas, where nearly 500 chemists, psychologists and technicians conducted research that cost up to $30 million a year, and the science corps focused intense amounts of resources on questions of crunch, mouth feel and aroma for each of these items. Their tools included a $40,000 device that simulated a chewing mouth to test and perfect the chips, discovering things like the perfect break point: people like a chip that snaps with about four pounds of pressure per square inch.

It's a fascinating long read and worth the time.

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