Wednesday, February 27, 2013

"These People Need a Lot of Things, but They Don't Need a Coke"


I had some for the first time in about 5 years the other day. I was compelled to read this article by Michael Moss the day before at the suggestion of a friend.

The article is a report on findings related to the internal affairs and consumer research within the [processed] food industry. There's terrible information contained within, but I wouldn't call it appalling, because, in my opinion, there would have to be some sort of surprise regarding the contents. Like everything in this country the food industry is a business driven by profit motive, steered by market regulations, but otherwise, a machine whose main focus is on the acquisition of capital, i.e., money. (And thereby, greed.)

The preface is a history lesson outlining an unlikely 1999 meeting of the heads of all the biggest food corporations in the country. They were gathered with the intent of collaborating to put a stop to the growing epidemic of diabetes, obesity, hypertension and heart disease in America and her children. The article has limited information because there was no transcript of the meeting, but I'll let you read the article. Suffice it to say, amoral profit motive won against consumer health at that meeting.

§ 1. The first section of the article is a report on a mathematical sweet spot, relentlessly pursued in formulating foods called the "bliss point". It's the perfect intersection of the basic elements (like earth, air, fire and water) in a product that leaves a consumer incapable of being satisfied. I probably don't have to list them here, but, in addition to the active ingredients (the ones that give the food its fundamental flavor), there is an "optimum" fat, salt and sugar content in a given food that will result in a taste experience humans crave, but that will not be strong enough to create a sense of satiety–something you can eat it in quantity but will never leave you feeling like you've had enough. Cases in point: Prego, Dr. Pepper, Doritos, Coca-Cola,

§ 2. The second section contains an amusing and very matter-of-fact stream of consciousness explanation on how the Lunchable was created. Moss's article article goes into the step by step process of repackaging a company's products and optimizing them in terms of storability, profit margin, and psychological appeal. It covers the investigation into the psychological sense of agency the product affords to the children, the fundamental motives driving the parents who buy them, and the pinpointing of that information into a marketing campaign that brought a problem solving bull session into a 10 figure product in a few short years.

§ 3. The third section, "It's Called Vanishing Caloric Density" has to do with the intricate, detailed work that goes into crafting the perfect salty, crunchy food–enter my Cheeto. One of the tools Frito lay has is a $40,000 device  simulating a chewing mouth which measures the exact amount of pressure required to crunch a chip. "Vanishing caloric density" is when the food you eat crunches and then "melts" away, your brain doesn't think it had any calories. "Cheetos [are] one of the most marvelously constructed foods on the planet, in terms of pure pleasure," Says Steven Witherly, a food scientist who wrote the guide, "Why Humans Like Junk Food."

§ 4. "These People Need a Lot of Things, but They Don't Need a Coke." This section outlines some of the tactics Coca-Cola used to sell product to impoverished nations. The key distinction in the article is that Coca-Cola discovered that it could make more money convincing people it calls "heavy users" to drink more rather than finding new markets. Sadly, those heavy users tend to be in poor, vulnerable and impoverished areas: post Katrina New Orleans and poor Brazilian slums (favelas, they're called) are cited.

So, what about my Cheeto? Well, I'm only guessing that the last time I ate a Cheeto was 5 years ago, because that was when I was working in a place so far from my house that I kept some junk food in my car to keep me from starving on the way home on my long commutes. (Just like they say, it's designed for a long shelf life, so it's perfect for this purpose.) Since then, I've had potato chips from time to time when my friend Ric has them, and the two or three times they're offered as a side when I order a sandwich, but that's exceedingly rare. The truth is, I don't remember the last time I had a Cheeto, and as far as junk food goes, I don't eat anything that's processed–sodas when they're offered free with a meal (and I only take it because I'm cheap) and I cook almost everything I eat. Now, now, there's the occasional fast food sandwich I'll have, but that's a once-in-a-while thing.

Anyhow, where do I stand with my first Cheeto in ages? I had to eat a couple before I could get into the groove of it, and it was amusing. Not satisfying, but fun, just like they said it should be. And I ate them as I wrote this blog entry. About 2 minutes after I got into the groove (about §2), my stomach told me "I'm not full, but I've had enough" and responded by making me feel terrible. I closed the bag.

Clearly, I'm not a person that's at high personal risk because of the junk food epidemic, but I know people who are. There's one friend in particular I have who eats almost exclusively processed foods. I think he's what the companies might call a "heavy user". In the article, they drew the parallel between processed foods and cigarettes in regard to the health consequences of heavy usage and the aggressive marketing to find and hook new users, and keeping with that parallel, he doesn't smoke, but there are metaphorical empty "cartons" stacked high in my friend's trash.

The good news in the article is that the addictive effects of these sorts of foods drop off after a few weeks of not using them. One loses one's acclimation to high salt, the sugar cravings go away, and you start to notice the fat you're consuming, so there's a chance to break the cycle. But if the companies have their way, you'll probably buy into the illusion of "convenience" they're selling and never "find the time" to make a healthy lunch–hell, until we can get some government regulation underway limiting what food companies can say about their products, you'll could try and still fail to choose healthy foods on your own. I'm not a nutritionist, and you probably aren't either, so when your box of Froot Loops has "Good Source of Fiber" written on it, or your Cheetos tout being "Made with Whole Grains", you could be reading the nutritional information on the back of the box and still get duped into making bad decisions.

As far as prepared foods go (Lunchables, Hot Pockets, etc.) the best advice is to remember this truism about picking a restaurant:

You can have food one of three ways:

  1. Fast
  2. Cheap
  3. Good or good for you

But you can only have two at a time.

As far as junk foods go (Coke, Cheetos, Doritos, etc.) I say this:

Close the bag.

What does Michael Moss Eat?
Another link to the article.

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