How Junk Food Owns You

The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food.

Moskowitz’s work on Prego spaghetti sauce was memorialized in a 2004 presentation by the author Malcolm Gladwell at the TED conference in Monterey, Calif.: “After . . . months and months, he had a mountain of data about how the American people feel about spaghetti sauce. . . . And sure enough, if you sit down and you analyze all this data on spaghetti sauce, you realize that all Americans fall into one of three groups. There are people who like their spaghetti sauce plain. There are people who like their spaghetti sauce spicy. And there are people who like it extra-chunky. And of those three facts, the third one was the most significant, because at the time, in the early 1980s, if you went to a supermarket, you would not find extra-chunky spaghetti sauce. And Prego turned to Howard, and they said, ‘Are you telling me that one-third of Americans crave extra-chunky spaghetti sauce, and yet no one is servicing their needs?’ And he said, ‘Yes.’ And Prego then went back and completely reformulated their spaghetti sauce and came out with a line of extra-chunky that immediately and completely took over the spaghetti-sauce business in this country. . . . That is Howard’s gift to the American people. . . . He fundamentally changed the way the food industry thinks about making you happy.”

Well, yes and no. One thing Gladwell didn’t mention is that the food industry already knew some things about making people happy — and it started with sugar. Many of the Prego sauces — whether cheesy, chunky or light — have one feature in common: The largest ingredient, after tomatoes, is sugar. A mere half-cup of Prego Traditional, for instance, has the equivalent of more than two teaspoons of sugar, as much as two-plus Oreo cookies. It also delivers one-third of the sodium recommended for a majority of American adults for an entire day. In making these sauces, Campbell supplied the ingredients, including the salt, sugar and, for some versions, fat, while Moskowitz supplied the optimization. “More is not necessarily better,” Moskowitz wrote in his own account of the Prego project. “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).”

Really long article, but it’s filled with tons of good info.

The Lunchables stuff is the most fascinating to me because I see these all the time at my work being eaten by women. They go nuts for these horrible plastic wads of meat and crackers.

In what would prove to be their greatest achievement of all, the Lunchables team would delve into adolescent psychology to discover that it wasn’t the food in the trays that excited the kids; it was the feeling of power it brought to their lives. As Bob Eckert, then the C.E.O. of Kraft, put it in 1999: “Lunchables aren’t about lunch. It’s about kids being able to put together what they want to eat, anytime, anywhere.”

Kraft’s early Lunchables campaign targeted mothers. They might be too distracted by work to make a lunch, but they loved their kids enough to offer them this prepackaged gift. But as the focus swung toward kids, Saturday-morning cartoons started carrying an ad that offered a different message: “All day, you gotta do what they say,” the ads said. “But lunchtime is all yours.”

With this marketing strategy in place and pizza Lunchables — the crust in one compartment, the cheese, pepperoni and sauce in others — proving to be a runaway success, the entire world of fast food suddenly opened up for Kraft to pursue. They came out with a Mexican-themed Lunchables called Beef Taco Wraps; a Mini Burgers Lunchables; a Mini Hot Dog Lunchable, which also happened to provide a way for Oscar Mayer to sell its wieners. By 1999, pancakes — which included syrup, icing, Lifesavers candy and Tang, for a whopping 76 grams of sugar — and waffles were, for a time, part of the Lunchables franchise as well.

Annual sales kept climbing, past $500 million, past $800 million; at last count, including sales in Britain, they were approaching the $1 billion mark. Lunchables was more than a hit; it was now its own category. Eventually, more than 60 varieties of Lunchables and other brands of trays would show up in the grocery stores. In 2007, Kraft even tried a Lunchables Jr. for 3- to 5-year-olds

I was intrigued enough by this article, I preordered the book from which it was extracted.

God dammit.

I clicked through to the article, saw the dorito, and now I want some fuckin’ doritos.

I just finished the article and the entire time I could hear my wife saying in my head “I told you so!”

She’s actually really good about making us eat healthy, including not typically buying junk food. When we do eat junk food (usually stuff I bought!), she bugs me to not take the bag off to the other room and eat out of it, but to put a portion in a bowl and just eat that. I hate doing that, but only because I end up eating less that way, and that stuff is tasty!

Who are you and why are you and your wife copying me and my wife!?? (edit: btw this is a joke, which I’m pointing out because tone doesn’t transfer on the internet)

Usually the conversation goes like this:

Me : URGH, I just ate like a whole bag of Doritos.
Her : Put them in a bowl!

It’s puffed Cheetos for me. I have a bag in the closet. The entire time I was reading the article this morning I couldn’t stop thinking of them. I consider it an amazing force of will that I haven’t had some yet.

Mmmm. Cheetos.

To get a better feel for their work, I called on Steven Witherly, a food scientist who wrote a fascinating guide for industry insiders titled, “Why Humans Like Junk Food.” I brought him two shopping bags filled with a variety of chips to taste. He zeroed right in on the Cheetos. “This,” Witherly said, “is one of the most marvelously constructed foods on the planet, in terms of pure pleasure.” He ticked off a dozen attributes of the Cheetos that make the brain say more. But the one he focused on most was the puff’s uncanny ability to melt 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.”

Cheetos - bleergh.
Doritos - yeah, not bad.
Wheat Thins - I can stop any time I want. I just don’t want to.

If it is in the house I will eat it. I don’t know how many times I have told my wife and daughter not to buy junk food that I like. I don’t buy the freakin stuff, but I sure as hell will eat the stuff if it is in the house.

Just read this article today. A good reminder that food is a multibillion-dollar market, not just stuff we need to injest to live.

Someone once told me “the trick to dieting is to basically not eat any food that is advertised” and it really is true.

Weird as hell, isn’t it? I can understand how Lunchables appeal to kids – although I’d never considered the “empowerment” angle – but to grown-ups? With real options? There’s a guy where I work who does Lunchables every day. Middle-aged, married, and he basically eats like a fourth-grader. The only thing missing is the little carton of chocolate milk.

I am extremely happy that I successfully isolated myself from any kind of intrusive advertising and as a result not tempted (at all) by any kind of junk food. My favorite tomato sauce? One that I make from fresh tomatoes, with a bit of herbs thrown in.

I just read the article in the OP – really fascinating, and pretty scary too! I’ll probably have to check out the book when it comes out next week.

No surprises here, companies care about profit over everything else. The processed food market has always been a place to dump extra product (ingredients) into, from sugar to salt and all those nasty E numbers etc. There is a reason the diet of the western hemisphere is one of the most unhealthy in the world. A simple case of where less is more (in terms of the ingredient count) much of the time.

I’ve been checking labels since i was 12, encouraged by my mum who was pretty switched on about all this. I’ve never been anything other than very healthy, and i’ve only ever eaten one burger from a famous fast food chain (just to confirm it was as disgusting as it looked like being). The war on our bodies, waged by the food industry, is an international concern.

I came to the same conclusion a while ago. Basically, that companies that make food basically have an adversarial relationship with me: they want to convince me to eat food that I don’t want. Realizing this, it became a lot easier to consciously resist buying food unthinkingly.

I wonder how many calories are in a Lunchables vs. the daily requirement for an adult (rather than a kid). Looks like it isn’t too bad, although there are still sodium and fat concerns of course, and that’s assuming he only eats one.

Also, I wish I got a little carton of chocolate milk with my lunch :(

I’m sure we all knew the truth behind the processed food industry, but this article goes a long way toward showing us how unfair the fight is between our brains/bodies and the junk out there being peddled to us.

At times like these I’m reminded of Michael Pollan’s famous statement: “Eat food*. Not too much. Mainly plants.”

*i.e., real food, not processed.

Yeah, me too :)

Known number of calories and convenience probably factors into the Lunchables decision for some people. There’s also a kind of Easy-Bake Oven “Create your own toy lunch! Plus, you can eat it!” quality to them, which I guess must be appealing on some level.

Interesting that real food doesn’t typically get advertised. I’m trying to think of exceptions to this, and I’m not coming up with many apart from general things like “Eat Mangoes!” campaigns sponsored by the American Mango Board. “Got Milk?” was/is huge, of course. Also “Beef. It’s what’s for dinner.” It makes sense in that real food basically means ingredients, and there aren’t too many FoodCo businesses primarily interested in pushing things that consumers to use to make other food, when the big profits are in “value added” processing.

Processed food is still real food. For that matter, cooking food is “processing” it. Salt isn’t particularly bad for you if you don’t already have hypertension, and you need a minimum amount of salt in your diet, which is why we crave it.

First World people aren’t particularly in any danger of malnutrition, so obsessing over things like vitamins / minerals / protein in your diet is misdirection. Mainly you need to be concerned over how much, which is the danger of so-called “junk” foods, they encourage you to eat more than you should, because they contain disproportionate amounts of things that taste good, like fats and sugars. Which taste good for a reason, those are hard to come by if you’re rooting around in the forest, and if getting enough calories is real problem it’s good to stock up on calories when you can get them.

The problem with labels like “real” and “processed” is that they encourage you to judge based on those labels without thinking too much. You can easily cook (thus “processing” your food) yourself a meal from “real” ingredients that has the same drawbacks of high sugars and fats. You don’t even need meats to do it, avocados for example are very high in fats.