Much of what New York Times investigative reporter Michael Moss reveals in his new book Sugar, Salt, Fat is obvious: Extremely salty, fatty, and sweet foods are truly addictive. What's less obvious — and fascinating — are the precise and scientific methods food manufacturers use to keep consumers buying those foods in greater and greater quantities. Moss talked to food-industry scientists and executives for more than three years, combing through internal corporate documents to understand America's largest and most powerful food companies.
1. Food companies know how our brains work in a grocery store, and they pay big money for good placement.
But getting their goods inside our grocery carts is only half the battle. These companies want us to buy their stuff again and again.
2. Frito-Lay, for example, has a research team of nearly 500 scientists dedicated to fine-tuning their snacks for maximum deliciousness (and addictive power).
3. They even used a $40,000 chewing-simulation device to achieve the ideal crunch level for their chips.
4. And they know that the louder chips crunch, the better they taste.
5. Coca-Cola's scientists carefully calibrate Coke's flavor to be distinctive yet "forgettable" because our tongues get tired of stronger, more recognizable tastes.
6. Cadbury's scientists tested 61 different formulas to come up with the perfectly addictive Cherry Vanilla Dr Pepper.
The report of their findings was 135 pages long.
One powerful asset food companies have at their disposal is...
Studies show that salt is addictive in some of the same ways as cigarettes or hard drugs, and food companies pack it into their products in astonishing amounts.
Studies from as far back as 1991 show that salt activates the same neurological pathways that narcotics do, triggering the brain's "pleasure center."
Unlike sugar, which all babies love from birth, salt is an acquired taste. Kids who are exposed to salty foods before six months start to prefer salted over unsalted foods, while kids who aren't exposed don't. Today, more than three-quarters of Americans' weekly salt intake comes from processed foods.
And to manufacturers, salt isn't just salt; food producer Cargill sells 40 different types with different chemical structures. Each one is optimized for certain uses, and they have fun names like "Special Flake," "Fine Flake Improved," and "Shur-Flo Fine Flour Salt."
7. A Hungry Man roast turkey dinner lists salt nine separate times in its ingredients.
8. Some Doritos have more than three times as much sodium as potato chips.
9. Three slices of Oscar Meyer ham can contain more than half a day's recommended sodium intake.
10. Even V8 juice has 420mg of sodium per cup, or 20% of your daily recommended intake.
11. Commercially produced bread is heavy on salt because it keeps the machines from getting gummed up.
Another weapon in the snack manufacturing arsenal is...
Every human is genetically predisposed to love sugar, so food companies put it in foods you wouldn't expect.
12. There's as much sugar in half a cup of Prego tomato sauce...
...as there is in three Oreos (two teaspoons).
13. "Fruit" drinks are some of the worst for you. Cherry Capri Sun has 28% more sugar per ounce than Coca-Cola does.
14. Pancakes "breakfast" Lunchables (R.I.P.) had 76 grams of sugar (three times the AHA's daily intake recommendation).
15. The top ingredient in Apple Jacks is sugar (43%).
16. The American Heart Association's recommendation for women's sugar intake is just five teaspoons a day.
Read more about the AHA's guidelines here.
That's half a can of Coke.
Or one and a half Fig Newtons.
And, of course, these companies also use...
Fat is also addictive.
17. Which is part of the reason that a large (10-oz.) bag of Lay's packs one and a half days' worth of fat (about 100g).
18. One DiGiorno Cheese Stuffed Crust Supreme Pizza has more than two days' worth of saturated fat (42 grams).
19. Two spoonfuls of Philadelphia's Indulgence chocolate cream cheese has a quarter of the daily maximum for saturated fat.
Just in case you haven't lost your appetite yet, we'll leave you with these final fun facts courtesy of Michael Moss:
20. Cheez Whiz does not list cheese as an ingredient.
According to Kraft, Cheez Whiz does contain some cheese, but the ingredients are listed separately (as whey, milk, etc). Wired has a good explanation of its more mysterious components here.
21. Packaged food executives don't actually eat the products their companies make.
John Ruff from Kraft gave up sweet drinks and fatty snacks. Bob Lin from Frito-Lay avoids potato chips. Howard Moskowitz, a soft drink engineer, doesn't drink soda.
22. Coca-Cola executives refer to consumers who drink more than two or three cans a day as "heavy users."
23. The biggest food company in the country, Kraft, was controlled by the biggest tobacco company, Altria (formerly Philip Morris) until 2007.
You can draw the delightful parallels yourself!
[CORRECTION: A previous version of this article did not make clear that Kraft is no longer owned by Altria.]