Why I’m addicted to ‘The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food’

There is a Tumblr devoted to photos of vending machines located in print newspaper buildings, and it reminds me that between graduate school and most of my career doing the daily grind, I ate far too many snacks and pseudo-meals out of vending machines like these:

“I work at a famous American newspaper,” the Tumblr creator explains. “In September 2011, the snack machine went from ‘bland but respectable’ to ‘where flavors go to die.’ Here, I will depict the fall of print journalism through the plummeting quality of newspaper snack machine offerings.” This is endlessly hilarious — and accurate — if you’ve worked in a newsroom.

The cover story in today’s The New York Times Magazine called “The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food” reminded me about my sad culinary habits of years past, and it reminds me of two main observations I’ve noticed over the past three weeks:

  • Even though I’m now fully on the Ayurveda eating program — as noted in “Life after Sriracha: Transforming my eating habits with Ayurveda” — I’ve been working 11-, 12-hour days and weekends over the past two or three weeks, and the stress level has been pretty damn high. Here’s the thing: Anxious and exhausted, my cravings totally reverted to my pre-Ayurveda days. I’ve been craving carbs — oh, those salty snacks in the afternoon — and chocolate. In a couple short weeks, my few months of retraining my taste buds to crave whole grains and the like can’t seem to fight my ingrained habit of turning to salty and sugary snacks in times of stress.
  • It is so incredibly hard to find food that’s not ridiculously processed, not full of carbs and not full of sodium and empty calories. Coffee shops — even the good ones — offer croissants, wraps, banana nut bread. Conveniently packaged snacks that are healthy to boot? I have to go to make a specific trip to a natural food store to find those.

This article by Pulitzer Prize-winning Times investigative reporter Michael Moss, which is based on book called Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us coming out later this month, details in striking detail how we got to this point in this country.

Here’s a bit about the snack industry’s “bliss point” calculations:

The military has long been in a peculiar bind when it comes to food: how to get soldiers to eat more rations when they are in the field. They know that over time, soldiers would gradually find their meals-ready-to-eat so boring that they would toss them away, half-eaten, and not get all the calories they needed. But what was causing this M.R.E.-fatigue was a mystery. “So I started asking soldiers how frequently they would like to eat this or that, trying to figure out which products they would find boring,” [food-industry legend Howard] Moskowitz said. The answers he got were inconsistent. “They liked flavorful foods like turkey tetrazzini, but only at first; they quickly grew tired of them. On the other hand, mundane foods like white bread would never get them too excited, but they could eat lots and lots of it without feeling they’d had enough.”

This contradiction is known as “sensory-specific satiety.” In lay terms, it is the tendency for big, distinct flavors to overwhelm the brain, which responds by depressing your desire to have more. Sensory-specific satiety also became a guiding principle for the processed-food industry. The biggest hits — be they Coca-Cola or Doritos — owe their success to complex formulas that pique the taste buds enough to be alluring but don’t have a distinct, overriding single flavor that tells the brain to stop eating.

Moskowitz worked on a big Dr Pepper campaign:

Finding the bliss point required the preparation of 61 subtly distinct formulas — 31 for the regular version and 30 for diet. The formulas were then subjected to 3,904 tastings organized in Los Angeles, Dallas, Chicago and Philadelphia. The Dr Pepper tasters began working through their samples, resting five minutes between each sip to restore their taste buds. After each sample, they gave numerically ranked answers to a set of questions: How much did they like it overall? How strong is the taste? How do they feel about the taste? How would they describe the quality of this product? How likely would they be to purchase this product?

Moskowitz’s data — compiled in a 135-page report for the soda maker — is tremendously fine-grained, showing how different people and groups of people feel about a strong vanilla taste versus weak, various aspects of aroma and the powerful sensory force that food scientists call “mouth feel.” This is the way a product interacts with the mouth, as defined more specifically by a host of related sensations, from dryness to gumminess to moisture release. These are terms more familiar to sommeliers, but the mouth feel of soda and many other food items, especially those high in fat, is second only to the bliss point in its ability to predict how much craving a product will induce.

In addition to taste, the consumers were also tested on their response to color, which proved to be highly sensitive. “When we increased the level of the Dr Pepper flavoring, it gets darker and liking goes off,” Reisner said. These preferences can also be cross-referenced by age, sex and race.

On Page 83 of the report, a thin blue line represents the amount of Dr Pepper flavoring needed to generate maximum appeal. The line is shaped like an upside-down U, just like the bliss-point curve that Moskowitz studied 30 years earlier in his Army lab. And at the top of the arc, there is not a single sweet spot but instead a sweet range, within which “bliss” was achievable. This meant that Cadbury could edge back on its key ingredient, the sugary Dr Pepper syrup, without falling out of the range and losing the bliss. Instead of using 2 milliliters of the flavoring, for instance, they could use 1.69 milliliters and achieve the same effect. The potential savings is merely a few percentage points, and it won’t mean much to individual consumers who are counting calories or grams of sugar. But for Dr Pepper, it adds up to colossal savings. “That looks like nothing,” Reisner said. “But it’s a lot of money. A lot of money. Millions.”

The soda that emerged from all of Moskowitz’s variations became known as Cherry Vanilla Dr Pepper, and it proved successful beyond anything Cadbury imagined. In 2008, Cadbury split off its soft-drinks business, which included Snapple and 7-Up. The Dr Pepper Snapple Group has since been valued in excess of $11 billion.

It’s been years since I drank soda on a regular basis, but when I did, Diet Dr Pepper was one of my preferred.

Have you ever had 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.”

All I can say is that I’m quite grateful I’ve found Ayurveda as a method for short-circuiting the types of highly programmed eating habits described here. The magazine piece is well worth the time to read, and I can’t wait for the book’s release.

Shout out, by the way, to Michael Moss, who spent four years reporting the book that this magazine piece is based on. A reporter at the Wall Street Journal at the time, he was one of my favorites instructors at Columbia J-School. I learned a lot of subtle and important lessons from him, and I still remember that he took the time to sit on a campus bench one day to talk to me about why I had decided to go to graduate school in journalism, and what I had hoped to do post-graduation. I couldn’t have predicted then that Ashtanga yoga and blogging would eventually be such an important part of my life, but unlike our apparent collective, calculated taste for junk food, some things simply aren’t that predictable.

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[Graphic credit: Cover of the Feb. 24, 2013 edition of The New York Times Magazine]

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