Culinary Merchants of Death

I remember Lunchables, and the memories are very fond, indeed.  As a kid, I’m sure I tried all the original varieties, but my favorite was always their pizza:  The cracker-sized crusts and little vacuum-sealed packets of sauce and cheese that you assembled yourself.  For an unfussy fourth grader, it was the perfect lunch.

It never occurred to me that the people behind it were evil.

But that is the essence of a positively spellbinding article in this week’s New York Times Magazine, titled, “The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food.”  Excerpted from a forthcoming book by Michael Moss called Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, the article surveys some three decades’ worth of efforts by the packaged food industry to sell horribly unhealthy products to an unwitting public.

What makes the story so compelling is the prevalence of the word “addiction” in the context of food marketing, as used both by the author and by the marketing magicians themselves.  Moss draws a parallel with Big Tobacco, but he hardly needs to—the connection is unmistakable.

Recall the scene in Thank You For Smoking in which representatives for the tobacco, liquor and gun lobbies—“merchants of death,” they call themselves—meet for dinner and boast about the number of fatalities their respective products are responsible for causing?

Moss’s thesis, more or less, is that the snack food trade operates under a similarly callous ethos, viewing every consumer as a useful dolt, potential meat for slaughter.

Of course, the industry operatives themselves frame their business a bit more diplomatically than that.

One key term of theirs is “bliss point.”  As described by Howard Moskowitz, holder of a Ph.D. in experimental psychology and maestro of food “optimization,” this is the concept of engineering a food product to its greatest potential for satisfaction, as derived from taking a pile of considerations—taste, smell, texture and so forth—and running them through a focus group until a magic formula is attained.

At this point you may fairly ask:  Well, what’s wrong with that?

Indeed, it seems reasonable enough for a food company to invest its resources in figuring out how best to gratify its potential customers.

That is, until you wade into deeper waters, as Moss does, and realize the underlying object of finding this apex of culinary pleasure.

What do the seekers of this “bliss point” mean by calling it “optimal”?  What is their overriding consideration?

It is, in short, “How can we make this product as addictive as humanly possible?”

In one passage, Moss offers a précis about the alchemy of creating the perfect potato chip (hint: it involves salt) and quotes a food scientist who pinpoints Frito-Lay’s Cheeto as “one of the most marvelously constructed foods on the planet, in terms of pure pleasure.”  He cites a phenomenon called “vanishing caloric density,” whereby the tendency for Cheetos to melt in your mouth fools you into thinking they contain practically no calories and, therefore, “you can just keep eating [them] forever.”

The result, of course, is a country that is as fat and unhealthy as ever it has been.  The difference is that certain food companies—like tobacco companies in years past—are now suddenly being called to account, to assume responsibility for knowingly perpetuating a culture of destructive consumption.

The point at which Big Snack Foods becomes a mirror image of Big Tobacco—the “tell,” as it were—is the endless refrain by higher-ups that they are simply giving the public what it wants.  That if Americans have a hankering for crunchy cheese puffs made of sugar, salt and fat, then by God the crunchy cheese puff industry will provide them!  Is that not what capitalism is all about?

As we learned the hard way during the great showdown with the cigarette companies in the 1990s, it depends on precisely when “want” becomes “need”—on when a purchase is less an act of free will and more the expression of an uncontrollable impulse.

When someone pops into a 7-Eleven to grab his fourth pack of Marlboro Lights since breakfast, can he truly be said to be making a free spending decision in pursuit of his own happiness?  If not, does the entity that produced the addictive product bear any moral responsibility for the product’s impact on its customers?  Finally, and in any case, have we reached a point in which we ought to view eating habits in the same way?

We might agree that each of us is responsible for our actions.  But what happens when those actions are no longer truly in our control?

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