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Cheap, Legal And Everywhere: How Food Companies Get Us 'Hooked' On Junk

If you're someone who has turned to snacking on junk food more in the pandemic, you're not alone. Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Michael Moss says processed food is engineered to be "craveable," not unlike a cigarette or a hit of cocaine.

His 2013 book, Salt Sugar Fat, explored food companies' aggressive marketing of those products and their impact on our health. In his new book, Hooked, Moss updates the food giants' efforts to keep us eating what they serve — and how they're responding to complaints from consumers and health advocates.

Processed food, he notes, is "inexpensive, it's legal, it's everywhere. And the advertising from the companies is cueing us to remember those products and we want those products constantly. So the food environment ... is one of those key things that makes food even more problematic for so many people."

Moss notes that memory — and nostalgia in particular — play a big role in the foods we crave.

"The soda companies discovered that if they put a soda in the hands of a child when they're at a ballpark with their parents, that soda will forever be associated with that joyous moment," he says. "So later on in life, when that child now wants to experience a joyous moment, they're going to think of soda."

During the pandemic, he says, many people have sought comfort in the snacks they remember from childhood. "We went into the store, and we started buying products we hadn't had since we were kids," he says — recalling "great joyous moments."

Moss examines the way these companies capitalize on our memories, cravings and brain chemistry to keep us snacking.

Interview Highlights

On how the processed food industry appeals to our sense of nostalgia

One of the reasons I came to think that some of these food products are even more powerful, more troublesome than drugs can be is memory. What we eat is all about memory. And we begin forming memories for food at a really early age, possibly even in the womb, depending on what our mother is eating. And we keep those memories for a lifetime. They don't go away. ... And the more we eat these products, the deeper those memory channels go. And so the food industry, knowing that, spends lots of time trying to shape the memories that we have for their products.

<em>Hooked</em> by Michael Moss
/ Penguin Random House
Penguin Random House
Hooked by Michael Moss

On how processed food is designed to make your brain react fast

One of the hallmarks of addiction that scientists who are studying drug addiction discovered back in the 1990s was that the faster a substance hits the brain, the more apt we are as a result to act compulsively, impulsively. So they sort of speak about tobacco and alcohol and drug products in terms of the speed that they hit the brain. But it turns out that there's nothing faster than food in ... its ability to sort of hit the brain. ...

For me, this puts kind of the notion of "fast food" in an entirely new light. In fact, I like to call what we're talking about here "fast groceries" — that 90% of the middle part of the grocery store. We refine these things, because everything about the processed food industry is about speed, from the manufacturing to the packaging — making it easy for us to open up those packages and get at the food — to the actual speed of their products exciting our brains.

Michael Moss is an investigative reporter who formerly worked for<em> The New York Times,</em> where he won a Pulitzer Prize for his investigation into the dangers of contaminated meat.
Daniel Sheehan / Penguin Random House
Penguin Random House
Michael Moss is an investigative reporter who formerly worked for The New York Times, where he won a Pulitzer Prize for his investigation into the dangers of contaminated meat.

On the language these food companies use internally

Not just at Kraft, but at other companies, they use other language that's kind of startling when they talk about maximizing the allure of their products. They talk about engineering "snackability" and "craveability," and one of my favorite words, hearing from them is "more-ishness," as in, the person eating [and] wanting more and more of it. These aren't English majors; these are bench chemists and psychologists and marketing executives sort of talking about their efforts to maximize that.

We by nature are drawn to food that has calories, because for much of our previous existence, getting calories was a life or death thing.

On why we are naturally drawn to high-calorie foods

We by nature are drawn to food that has calories, because for much of our previous existence, getting calories was a life or death thing. It enabled us to put on some body fat, which enabled our brains to grow and us to get through hard times and have more babies.

On if the food industry is knowingly trying to get us addicted

I've been crawling through this industry for 10 years now, and I still resist the idea of looking at them as this evil empire that intentionally set out to make us obese or otherwise ill on their products. These are companies doing what all companies want to do — make as much money [as they can]. But I think ... the problem lies in, kind of, their own dependence on making their products inexpensive and super yummy and incredibly convenient for us. And now that more and more people are caring about what they're put in their bodies and are wanting to eat healthier, these companies are finding it really difficult to meet that new demand because of their own addiction, if you will, to making these convenience foods. ...

In much of the industry, there really isn't a smoking gun. They wear their marketing schemes and their psychology and the things they go after, kind of, on the sleeves. You can see it on the packages, except for the way that they go after sort of our basic biology — that you can't see on their products. And I think that that's what made Hooked so interesting for me, was looking at the things that they're doing that aren't on the product label that cause us to lose control of our eating habits.

Sam Briger and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Deborah Franklin adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.