Junk Food Inkblot Test

Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Moss published a provocative account of the science behind addictive junk food in the New York Times Magazine this week. It quickly became the hottest story on the Times website. And it also became a powerful test of just what you see in the food industry. The vivid description of the people and the process that gave us foods to fulfill the Lays potato chip promise (“no one can eat just one”) lets you see what you want.

You might see Big Food systematically engineering products that are destroying America’s health, food that fuels the obesity epidemic. This is an industry, you might see, that is responsible for a generation of children who will live shorter lives than their parents.

You might also see people whose good intentions to develop products that would meet some basic human needs get overwhelmed by market forces. Moss introduces us to four individuals who play pivotal roles in his article. Howard Moskowitz is legendary food optimizer who developed methods to find the “bliss point” for any food to maximize cravings. Bob Drane  is the product development genius behind Oscar Mayer Lunchables loaded with salt, sugar, and fat that mothers and children gobbled up. Robert I-San Lin was the chief cientist for Frito-Lay in the late 1970s who tried, unsuccessfully, to address concerns about health and habituation problems with salt. Jeffrey Dunn was a senior executive for Coca-Cola who realized that people in developing countries “need a lot of things, but they don’t need a Coke.” Reflecting on this, he said, “I almost threw up.”

Moss ultimately depicts each of these people as having regrets for their role in the food industry. The exception is Moskowitz, who he quotes as saying, “There’s no moral issue for me. I did the best science I could. I was struggling to survive and didn’t have the luxury of being a moral creature.”

Regardless of what you see in all this, you’ll be seeing a lot of it. Moss is coming out with a new book: “Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us.” You’ll doubtless find him on just about every major media outlet in the coming days, provoking lots of thought and conversation.

Click here to read more in the New York Times and here to listen to Moss on Fresh Air.

Rorshach Inkblot image from Wikimedia