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.
A 2005 Coca-Cola research study showed that people tend to move counterclockwise through supermarkets, from back to front — so eye-catching soda displays will be in the front right of the store to catch your attention when you go in, and main racks of soda should be at the rear right of the store.
3. They even used a $40,000 chewing-simulation device to achieve the ideal crunch level for their chips.
The device tests the ideal amount of pressure chips should withstand before they snap — about four pounds of pressure per inch.
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.
It’s a mix of aroma (vanilla, citrus, spices), taste (sweetness, acid), and texture (carbonation).
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.”
Another weapon in the snack manufacturing arsenal is…
Many products are sweetened with pure fructose, which is different from regular table sugar (sucrose). It decomposes much more slowly, which extends shelf life of baked goods. It also resists forming crystals, which keeps cookies and ice cream soft. Additionally, fructose is much sweeter-tasting than sucrose or glucose, which means manufacturers can use less of it (and claim health benefits) while maintaing the same level of sweetness.
BUT, for the record, regular sugar and “high-fructose” corn syrup are basically the same. Chemically, they’re both half glucose and half fructose. And they’re equally bad for you. Manufacturers tend to use the syrup because it’s cheap and convenient.
13. “Fruit” drinks are some of the worst for you. Cherry Capri Sun has 28% more sugar per ounce than Coca-Cola does.
A lot of drinks and foods are sweetened with fruit juice concentrate, which means they can claim fruit as an ingredient. But it’s just sugar with a healthier-sounding name — all of the fruit’s fiber and nutrients are stripped out during the manufacturing process.
14. Pancakes “breakfast” Lunchables (R.I.P.) had 76 grams of sugar (three times the AHA’s daily intake recommendation).
The pancakes came with syrup, icing, Lifesavers, and Tang.
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.
Fat is also addictive.
Fat’s allure is a little bit more complicated than salt or sugar. There are no taste buds on the tongue that specifically respond to it, but nonetheless it has been shown to trigger similar reactions to cocaine. Manufacturers load lots of packaged products with fat because it helps mask unpleasant or sharp flavors (often introduced by chemicals in the manufacturing process), gives foods an appealing texture, and extends shelf life.
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.]
For the full story, buy a copy of Michael Moss’s new book. You can also find an excerpt that was recently published in the New York Times Magazine.