Michael Moss won the Pulitzer Prize for his 2009 article “The Burger That Shattered Her Life”, detailing the tragic story of a young, 22 year-old children’s dance instructor left paralyzed from the waist down after being stricken with a severe form of food-borne illness caused by E. coli.
Moss conducted interviews and obtained government and corporate records, confidential grinding logs and other Cargill records that showed the hamburger the dance instructor ate was made from a mix of meat from several slaughterhouses that were ground together at a plant in Wisconsin.
Now in another of his penetrating articles, “The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food,” Moss explores the secret world of Big Food conglomerates such as Nestlé, Kraft, Nabisco, Procter & Gamble, Pillsbury, General Mills, Oscar Mayer, Frito-Lay, and the activities of their legions of lab scientists, chemists, and psychologists who devote all their time engineering products to lure consumers to buy their junk food.
Frito-Lay, for example, had a research complex near Dallas, where nearly 500 chemists, psychologists and technicians conducted research that cost up to $30 million a year to study questions of crunch, mouth feel and aroma.
“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.”
What Moss found, over four years of research and reporting, was a deliberate effort taking place in labs, marketing meetings, and grocery-store aisles to get people hooked on foods that are convenient and inexpensive.
Moss spoke with more than 300 people in or formerly employed by the processed-food industry, from scientists to marketers to C.E.O.’s.
Some were willing whistle-blowers, says Moss, while others spoke reluctantly when presented with some of the thousands of pages of secret memos he obtained from inside the food industry’s operations.
Moss assembled a series of small case studies of a handful of characters whose work sheds light on how the foods are created and sold to people vulnerable to the intensity of these companies’ industrial formulations and selling campaigns.
Moss discovered when a major food company has a losing product on their hands they turn to a food-industry legend named Howard Moskowitz.
Howard Moskowitz studied mathematics and holds a Ph.D. in experimental psychology from Harvard, runs a consulting firm in White Plains, where for more than three decades he has “optimized” a variety of products for Campbell Soup, General Foods, Kraft and PepsiCo.
“I’ve optimized soups,” Moskowitz told Moss. “I’ve optimized pizzas. I’ve optimized salad dressings and pickles. In this field, I’m a game changer.”
“He fundamentally changed the way the food industry thinks about making you happy,” said author Malcolm Gladwell.
One thing the food industry knew from the beginning about making people happy is sugar. For instance, under Stephen Sanger’s leadership, General Mills had overtaken not just the cereal aisle but other sections of the grocery store.
The company’s Yoplait brand had transformed traditional unsweetened breakfast yogurt — historically viewed as a wholesome snack — into a bona fide dessert, with twice as much sugar per serving as General Mills’ marshmallow cereal Lucky Charms.
And many of the Prego sauces have one feature in common: The largest ingredient, after tomatoes, is sugar. In making these sauces, Campbell supplied the ingredients, including the salt, sugar and fat, while Moskowitz supplied the optimization.
The Bliss Point
“More is not necessarily better,” Moskowitz wrote in his own account of his work with Prego. “As the sensory intensity (say, of sweetness) increases, consumers first say that they like the product more, but eventually, with a middle level of sweetness, consumers like the product the most (this is their optimum, or ‘bliss,’ point).”
Moskowitz admits the food industry could be doing far more to curb obesity, but Moss says he had no reservations about his own pioneering work on discovering what industry insiders now regularly refer to as “the bliss point” or any of the other systems that helped food companies create the greatest amount of crave.
“There’s no moral issue for me,” he said. “I did the best science I could. I was struggling to survive and didn’t have the luxury of being a moral creature. As a researcher, I was ahead of my time.”
Moss explains that Moskowitz’s path to mastering the bliss point began not at Harvard but a few months after graduation, 16 miles from Cambridge, where the U.S. Army hired him to work in its research labs.
Soldiers found their meals-ready-to-eat (M.R.E) so boring that they would toss them away, half-eaten, robbing them of needed calories.
“They liked flavorful foods like turkey tetrazzini, but only at first; they quickly grew tired of them. On the other hand, mundane foods like white bread would never get them too excited, but they could eat lots and lots of it without feeling they’d had enough.”
Moss says this contradiction is known as “sensory-specific satiety.” In lay terms, it is the tendency for big, distinct flavors to overwhelm the brain, which responds by depressing your desire to have more.
“Sensory-specific satiety also became a guiding principle for the processed-food industry. The biggest hits — be they Coca-Cola or Doritos — owe their success to complex formulas that pique the taste buds enough to be alluring but don’t have a distinct, overriding single flavor that tells the brain to stop eating.”
Most Marvelously Constructed Food on the Planet
To obtain more depth of insight, Moss says he contacted Steven Witherly, a food scientist who wrote a guide for industry insiders titled, “Why Humans Like Junk Food.”
Moss brought him two shopping bags filled with a variety of chips to taste. He focused immediately on the Cheetos. “This,” Witherly said, “is one of the most marvelously constructed foods on the planet, in terms of pure pleasure.”
Moss said Witherly rattled off a dozen attributes of Cheetos that make the brain say more. But the one he focused on most was how the cheese puff melted in the mouth.
“It’s called vanishing caloric density,” Witherly said. “If something melts down quickly, your brain thinks that there’s no calories in it…you can just keep eating it forever.”
For insiders of America’s largest food companies like Witherly, Moskowitz, Sanger, and others, the value they see in food is totally removed from foods rich in healthy vitamins and minerals that contribute to the well being of consumers.
Their focus is on marvelously constructed “food-like substances” consumers will become addicted to, totally devoid of any nutritional value.
You can read Moss’s full article here. It’s well worth the time.