Writing in the New York Times last week, investigative reporter Michael Moss explained how junk food was engineered for addiction and debated whether the industry’s leaders are willing to make healthy changes needed to address America's obesity epidemic.
How junk food is ‘optimized’ to create addicts out of consumers
Moss profiled Howard Moskowitz, who has pioneered the field of food "optimization,” which involves finding the combination of taste, color, and texture that consumers crave. Moskowitz has helped many companies—including Campbell Soup, Kraft Foods, and PepsiCo—optimize their food offerings using mathematical models to find the perfect sensory experience, or the "bliss point."
The "bliss point" marks a contradiction known as "sensory-specific satiety”: Big, distinctive flavors tend to overwhelm the brain, depressing the desire to eat more. According to Moss, finding that bliss point requires thousands of taste testers and often involves the addition of unhealthy amounts of sugar and sodium.
For example, Frito-Lay used a $40,000 chewing simulation device to determine that consumers like a potato chip that "snaps with about four pounds of pressure per square inch." The device is only a drop in the company’s $30 million annual budget for snack food optimization, Moss says.
It remains to be seen whether companies are ready to back away from the bliss point in favor of health, according to Moss.
A few companies—such as Nestle, Kraft, and General Mills—have begun trimming sugar and salt, under pressure from the Obama administration. Big soda companies have also faced the music; in New York City, the local government has banned large servings of sugary beverages.
But, some experts wonder whether consumers will have the willpower to choose healthier options or limit their portions, even if given the option.
Junk food is "what the consumer wants, and we're not putting a gun to their head to eat it," according to former Philip Morris CEO Geoffrey Bible, adding that if "we give them less, they'll buy less, and the competitor will get our market. So you're sort of trapped" (Moss, New York Times, 2/20).