The Extraordinary (and Pretty Damn Cool) Science of Junk Food

cheetos

If you haven’t already, I’d encourage you to read this fascinating NY Times piece (excerpted from a forthcoming book) on “The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food”.

A friend tweeted that it was a ‘brilliant indictment of the food industry’, which I gather it was meant to be, and which I agree it was to some extent. There are some pretty chilling descriptions of industry strategies to sell more calories, including some pretty off-putting language to describe the bodies that those calories are designed for:

In Coke’s headquarters in Atlanta, the biggest consumers were referred to as “heavy users.” “The other model we use was called ‘drinks and drinkers,’ ” Dunn said. “How many drinkers do I have? And how many drinks do they drink? If you lost one of those heavy users, if somebody just decided to stop drinking Coke, how many drinkers would you have to get, at low velocity, to make up for that heavy user? The answer is a lot. It’s more efficient to get my existing users to drink more.”

One of Dunn’s lieutenants, Todd Putman, who worked at Coca-Cola from 1997 to 2001, said the goal became much larger than merely beating the rival brands; Coca-Cola strove to outsell every other thing people drank, including milk and water. The marketing division’s efforts boiled down to one question, Putman said: “How can we drive more ounces into more bodies more often?”

So while I remain sceptical of the “addictive” nature of “junk food” – or rather, I am concerned with how easy the criteria for “addictions” seem to be to fulfil these days – I can appreciate that it’s in the interests of people selling food that we don’t really need to strive to get us hooked on them. And the evident success of that venture has obviously contributed to the rising levels of obesity and poor health.

But I surely can’t be the only one who thinks that the science behind some of this stuff is pretty damn cool. Cheetos (pictured above!), are described as ‘one of the most marvelously constructed foods on the planet, in terms of pure pleasure’. This “bliss point” is no easy feat to achieve neither:

Frito-Lay had a formidable research complex near Dallas, where nearly 500 chemists, psychologists and technicians conducted research that cost up to $30 million a year, and the science corps focused intense amounts of resources on questions of crunch, mouth feel and aroma for each of these items. 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.

How cool is a chewing-mouth machine?

But it’s become very uncool to be impressed with anything related to or produced by Big Bad Food. They are the source of all our problems, and may apparently not be involved in any solutions. All or nothing. Take it or leave it. No wonder people have problems with moderation.

For the record, I don’t even like Cheetos. But if I did, then I would defend my right to make a Mac and Cheese Cheetos Pie (pictured below!), and I would damn well hope it delivered big on bliss after someone had spent $40K on a fake mouth to get them just right.

mac-cheetos-pie

Surely that’s a better use for them than making portraits of Obama and Romney? What a waste.

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