The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food

Michael Moss pulls back just a fraction of the curtain on how giant food corporations collude to control your diet in a lengthy piece for the New York Times Magazine:

On the evening of April 8, 1999, a long line of Town Cars and taxis pulled up to the Minneapolis headquarters of Pillsbury and discharged 11 men who controlled America’s largest food companies. Nestlé was in attendance, as were Kraft and Nabisco, General Mills and Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola and Mars. Rivals any other day, the C.E.O.’s and company presidents had come together for a rare, private meeting. On the agenda was one item: the emerging obesity epidemic and how to deal with it. While the atmosphere was cordial, the men assembled were hardly friends. Their stature was defined by their skill in fighting one another for what they called “stomach share” — the amount of digestive space that any one company’s brand can grab from the competition.

James Behnke, a 55-year-old executive at Pillsbury, greeted the men as they arrived. He was anxious but also hopeful about the plan that he and a few other food-company executives had devised to engage the C.E.O.’s on America’s growing weight problem. “We were very concerned, and rightfully so, that obesity was becoming a major issue,” Behnke recalled. “People were starting to talk about sugar taxes, and there was a lot of pressure on food companies.” Getting the company chiefs in the same room to talk about anything, much less a sensitive issue like this, was a tricky business, so Behnke and his fellow organizers had scripted the meeting carefully, honing the message to its barest essentials. “C.E.O.’s in the food industry are typically not technical guys, and they’re uncomfortable going to meetings where technical people talk in technical terms about technical things,” Behnke said. “They don’t want to be embarrassed. They don’t want to make commitments. They want to maintain their aloofness and autonomy.”

A chemist by training with a doctoral degree in food science, Behnke became Pillsbury’s chief technical officer in 1979 and was instrumental in creating a long line of hit products, including microwaveable popcorn. He deeply admired Pillsbury but in recent years had grown troubled by pictures of obese children suffering from diabetes and the earliest signs of hypertension and heart disease. In the months leading up to the C.E.O. meeting, he was engaged in conversation with a group of food-science experts who were painting an increasingly grim picture of the public’s ability to cope with the industry’s formulations — from the body’s fragile controls on overeating to the hidden power of some processed foods to make people feel hungrier still. It was time, he and a handful of others felt, to warn the C.E.O.’s that their companies may have gone too far in creating and marketing products that posed the greatest health concerns…

[continues in the New York Times Magazine]


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11 Comments on "The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food"

  1. Bluebird_of_Fastidiousness | Feb 20, 2013 at 3:43 pm |

    Successful parasites don’t kill their hosts. Someone get these guys to talk to the politicians.

  2. Phillipede | Feb 20, 2013 at 4:43 pm |

    There is a lot to be said for personal accountability. It’s not like people don’t know that junk food is bad for them, they just simply don’t care until they start having chest pains. I’m reminded of a story about a guy who ate much crap on a daily basis and then sued several fast food joints for making him fat.

    I think the only intelligent thing I’ve ever heard come out of Glenn Becks mouth is that there should be a new Surgeon Generals warning that says, “Obesity is bad for you, but cookie dough is delicious. It’s your life eat whatever you want.” The only thing I’d add to that is “After making a personal decision to eat nothing but crap, your cries of foul will fall on deaf ears.”

    • David Howe | Feb 20, 2013 at 7:51 pm |

      I agree, generally, but I think you’re overlooking the truly awesome machinery of subsidies, marketing, and pricing. There’s a reason why there’s a ton of advertising for cereal but no advertising for carrots and eggs. Grains and sugars are subsidized to a profound level, thus making these long-shelf-life foods highly profitable.

      There is a large array of controls in place, from farm subsidies (one of the big reasons there’s so much sugar in food), to the consolidation of the big food companies, to the deceptive packaging with dangerous levels of some ingredients (thanks to the FDA) to the constant, numbing hum of advertising. That’s an awesome force with the power to overwhelm even the strongest will. They know our weakness and they study them very carefully.

      • Matt Staggs | Feb 21, 2013 at 10:31 am |

        I’d also like to add that eating healthy is very expensive, time-consuming, and not always an option for those of limited means and/or living in “food deserts”. Education is also a major issue. Really, the whole obesity thing is a lot more complicated than telling people to stop eating junk food. That’s easy to say, and for a lot of us it probably applies, but for the poor, uneducated and those with few options, it’s not an easy fix.

        • fuckmonsanto | Feb 22, 2013 at 7:35 pm |

          Good point Matt – cheap (junk) food is a good reason to keep the minimum wage low.

  3. Honestly I don’t see why they need to increase appetite. When I was of no fixed abode and got comfortable with one meal a day, it seems ludicrous to me how much I used to eat in comparison, three big plates of food three times a day. All I need to do is eat an extra meal or a huge cheesy pizza for a couple of days and it’s like my appetite increases threefold. Hunger in my experience doesn’t always mean that you need to eat, it seems pretty easy to be deceived by it even if one doesn’t eat these snacks or fast food.

  4. Note the deep depravity of those who most profit by selling junk food, they do not feed that rubbish to their own families and attack government if they try to limit the ability to sell that rubbish to other families.
    They are knowingly poisoning children for that extra mansion, for that super car, for that private jet, basically so that they can consume and pollute more.

    • And here people wonder why a growing number of people are concluding that our brains are failing to no longer fully develop, and this is leaving us perceptually deluded?

  5. BuzzCoastin | Feb 20, 2013 at 8:03 pm |

    Junk Food isn’t the only poisoned substances in stores
    and it isn’t the only substance that is psyoped into your mouth as food

  6. I didn’t realize aloofness and autonomy were mutaully exclusive. And how did a food scientist, James Behnke, become head of a food conglomerate? Their food destroys us from the inside and we keep on eating it!

  7. Perplexor | Feb 22, 2013 at 12:11 am |

    I stopped drinking Coke when they changed it to high fructose corn syrup. That stuff is in almost everything now and it tastes terrible. We have become dumping grounds for corporate waste. Read the labels, stuff is loaded with poisons. They see each person as something to dump as much trash in for a time span. Our children will be lucky to make it to 55 and 60 now.

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