Thinking about food

I read a long but intriguing New York Times article today about how the food industry engineers processed food products specifically to promote consumer addiction. We as a species are easily manipulated, apparently, by our love of salt, sugar and fat into eating things we know are bad for us, that make us feel bad both emotionally and physically when we eat them, but that we just can’t stop eating. They know this.

The junk food makers will spend any amount of money to create the exactly right combination of factors in their products that will induce us to willingly and happily eat ourselves into an early grave while clutching a bag or box or can of their products in our fat, greasy little fingers. Case in point: potato chips.

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 [different flavors of potato chips]. 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.

This one food has done untold damage to the American waistline, among other things.

In 2011, The New England Journal of Medicine published a study that shed new light on America’s weight gain. The subjects—120,877 women and men—were all professionals in the health field, and were likely to be more conscious about nutrition, so the findings might well understate the overall trend. Using data 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. The researchers parsed the data by the caloric content of the foods being eaten, and found the top contributors to weight gain included red meat and processed meats, sugar-sweetened beverages and potatoes, including mashed and French fries. But 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 is readily absorbed,” Eric Rimm, an associate professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health and one of the study’s authors, told me. “More quickly even than a similar amount of sugar. The starch, in turn, causes the glucose levels in the blood to spike” — which can result in a craving for more.

One wonders why this fact is not more widely known, and why potato chips and snack foods like it are not targeted with the same zeal and venom as tobacco and alcohol as a public health threat. Instead, I see a lot of enthusiasm recently on Facebook and elsewhere on the internet for the new Lay’s potato chip flavors,  and I have to admit … that Chicken & Waffles one sounds kind of interesting! I’d like to try it, but then I might not be able to stop. 😦 And after reading that article, I really can’t help but look at Lay’s and all the other chip manufacturers with a much more jaundiced eye and a sinking sense that they really wouldn’t care if I literally ate myself to death on their product.

We are bombarded every day with food offerings that are not good for us, and we know they’re not good for us, but they’re cheap and quick so we think we’re getting a good deal. And besides, they taste great. Millions of dollars, hundreds of scientists, and thousands of taste testers see to that.

Let’s face it, we’re slaves to our taste buds. What to do?


I love food and I love to eat. I am not and have no desire to become a food activist. But I am also overweight, so I should be thinking more than I have been about making healthier food choices.

I’m already working on reducing my intake of animal-based foods for reasons that have more to do with ethics than health, actually, and although I’ve never been a big consumer of packaged/processed foods (because I prefer to cook most of my meals from scratch), I’m starting to think maybe they’ll be the next thing to go from my diet altogether. These are not foods that serve any part of my body except my taste buds, and those little hedonists can’t be allowed to run the show or else all I’ll ever eat is potato chips and Coke.

What I’m thinking about food these days is that I want to make good choices for my body and, insofar as I can, for the environment and the planet. My intention is not to prevent disease so much as to promote health–an appropriate weight, glossy hair, clear skin, smoothly functioning internal systems, strong teeth and bones, that sort of thing. I’ve been fortunate enough to be disease-free all my life, so I must be doing something right (or else I just have my really hardy Nordic and Teutonic genes to thank).

If the actuarial tables are to be believed, I am more than halfway through my expected life span now, which is when the chickens come home to roost from all those youthful indiscretions and casual disregard for the care of the corporeal vessel of which nearly every single one of us is guilty. It’s time to get serious about my health, and the first and foremost line of defense is what I eat.

Update, 17 March 2013: The NYT article’s author, Michael Moss, has expanded it into a book called Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us.



6 thoughts on “Thinking about food

  1. Great essay.I recently read Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals, and it was the final straw that broke my meat eating back, for health and ethics reasons. I really hate the idea of ‘food science’ – not the kind that brings us flash frozen veggies, but the kind that tells you the perfect crunch to a chip is 4 lbs psi, or that the ‘mouthfeel’ of a chocolate can be manipulated to cause you to want to eat more.

    • Thank you. 🙂 It does seem as though those millions and millions of dollars might be better spent on finding ways to help us all stay healthier, but perhaps that is not as profitable a pursuit …

  2. I’ve been reading similar articles for a while. I have to admit that my weakness is chocolate, so we try to not have it in the house. We do indulge sometimes. But for the most part, we eat healthy meals heavy on fresh and organic. Even the chocolate we buy is organic and Fair Trade – I think the Fair Trade is just as important so we buy that whenever it’s available. It’s more expensive to eat organic than not, but we look at it as cheap health insurance. I know we can’t change genetics, but we can give ourselves a boost by eating healthy.

    • Haven’t they determined that chocolate is *good* for you? If they haven’t, they should. 😉

      There are so many ethical and nutritional choices to make with food nowadays, it can be overwhelming just to step into the grocery store. With time and education, I hope the consumer demand for healthier, organic, fair trade options will increase to the point that prices will equal or at least get closer to those of conventional products. Of course, that’s unlikely to happen as long as the government subsidizes big agriculture and the beef/dairy/corn industries. We just have to do what we can and spread the word one person at a time.

      • Yes, chocolate is good for you; the darker the better. And depending what’s in it, you could get all the food groups in one chocolate bar! 🙂

        And yes, one person at a time may get us there.

  3. Pingback: Dietary disappointments | Going Forward

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