The Science of What Makes Junk Food So Addictive (And Delicious)

By Kyle Wagner on at

It's basically impossible to stop eating junk food. And it's like that for a reason. There are billions and billions of pounds and dollars at play in Big Snack, and those corporations want to keep it that way. The New York Times has an exhaustive and fairly massive feature about how junk food companies use everything from economic theory to chemistry to experimental psychology to keep you eating it.

There's a well-known alchemy in making colours, dyes, and artificial flavours into delicious foodstuffs, and largely that has, over time, boiled down to "add more sugar." There's a deeper science to it, though, employed by Howard Moskowitz, who studied mathematics and received a PhD in experimental psychology from Harvard, and is basically the Winston Wolf of junk food:

[The] food industry already knew some things about making people happy - and it started with sugar. Many of the Prego sauces - whether cheesy, chunky or light - have one feature in common: The largest ingredient, after tomatoes, is sugar. A mere half-cup of Prego Traditional, for instance, has the equivalent of more than two teaspoons of sugar, as much as two-plus Oreo cookies. It also delivers one-third of the sodium recommended for a majority of American adults for an entire day. In making these sauces, Campbell supplied the ingredients, including the salt, sugar and, for some versions, fat, while Moskowitz supplied the optimization. "More is not necessarily better," Moskowitz wrote in his own account of the Prego project. "As the sensory intensity (say, of sweetness) increases, consumers first say that they like the product more, but eventually, with a middle level of sweetness, consumers like the product the most (this is their optimum, or ‘bliss,' point)."

Psychology also played a role in the rise of Oscar Mayer's Lunchables resurgence. In the 80s, Oscar Mayer was facing a country that was watching what it ate for the first time, and red meat was in steep decline. The answer was to turn lunch into a release valve, where you could eat whatever you want, and make Lunchables into the vehicle of that relase:

Kraft's early Lunchables campaign targeted mothers. They might be too distracted by work to make a lunch, but they loved their kids enough to offer them this prepackaged gift. But as the focus swung toward kids, Saturday-morning cartoons started carrying an ad that offered a different message: "All day, you gotta do what they say," the ads said. "But lunchtime is all yours."

But one of the most striking, if not shocking, things in the story is the scope of the junk food industry's ambitions. Which is to say, nothing short of total global domination:

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?" (In response to Putman's remarks, Coke said its goals have changed and that it now focuses on providing consumers with more low- or no-calorie products.)

There's a tonne more to digest, too, like the Frito Lays (that's Walkers, for us in the UK) having to overcome the perception that its chips were literally too good, and you'd never be able stop eating them if you bought a bag. Check out the rest of the story at the NY Times. It's a great read, and well worth your time. [NY Times]

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