Photos by Alamy Stock
Journalist Michael Moss explains how the processed food industry exploits our bodies and our brains to compel us to overeat / BY Kim Honey / April 12th, 2021
Michael Moss looks at rows of brightly packaged cookies, jars of spaghetti sauce and microwaveable meals on the shelves of his local grocery store in Brooklyn, N.Y., and has a good chuckle. While most of us are ignorant of the machinations that compel us to buy food, the investigative journalist knows the thought that goes into the wrapping and irresistible contents.
“I look at all the tricks that they use to get us to put that package in the shopping cart and laugh,” Moss, 65, says in an interview from his home. “It’s so diabolical, it’s funny.”
He also knows what is happening when, with dismay, guilt or regret, we realize we’ve inhaled one of those stand-up bags of mini-Oreos we can eat with one hand.
It’s all orchestrated by our brains, with an assist from fat cells, stomach, nose and tongue. After reading Moss’s new book, Hooked: Food, Free Will and How the Food Giants Exploit Our Addictions, you may feel defeated because he shows how our brains conspire to ensure we consume calories we don’t need when we’re not even hungry. Add to that the food industry’s deepening grasp of neuroscience and the conundrum is summed up by one of Moss’s interviewees, neuroscientist Dana Small, who started out at Montreal’s McGill University in the early 2000s using positron emission tomography (PET) scans to map brains on chocolate. “It’s not so much that food is addictive but rather that we by nature are drawn to eating, and the companies changed the food,” the director of Yale University’s Modern Diet and Physiology Research Center tells Moss.
In 2010, Moss won a Pulitzer Prize for a New York Times story about contaminated meat and food-safety regulations. Then he embarked on research for his 2013 book Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, which, he writes in the prologue to Hooked, “argued that grocery manufacturers were competing with fast-food chains in a race to the bottom that rewarded profits over health.” But when he was doing interviews, time and again he was asked if he thought food was addictive and he didn’t have the answer. People were becoming more conscious of what they ate, and the food companies had responded by reducing salt, sugar and fat in their products. Yet he had a lingering feeling we were not in control of our appetites, and we had lost something in the transition from traditional, home-cooked meals to convenience food.
The goal of Hooked was to “sort out and size up the true peril in food,” he writes, and the first half of the book focuses on how much our penchant for overeating is baked into our biology, while the second half is devoted to how the processed food industry exploits it.
Moss now believes our obsession with food can be classified as an addiction, and it is more problematic than a tobacco or drug habit. “You can’t just go cold turkey,” he notes. Indeed, Moss uses the definition of addiction given by Philip Morris CEO Michael Szymanczyk in a 2000 class-action lawsuit launched by smokers: “A repetitive behaviour that some people find difficult to quit.”
The brain is still a vast mystery, but as scientists probed deeper into the recesses of our minds, they discovered the hypothalamus, an almond-sized structure in the mid-brain, is responsible for moderating the four Fs essential to survival: fight, flight, fornication and food. It does this by generating dopamine, a chemical that drives our desire to eat. In evolutionary terms, the ultimate payout is simply staying alive. Salt, sugar and fat are all we need to stimulate dopamine production, which in turn prompts the brain to make natural opioid-like chemicals like endorphins that flood the nervous system and can reduce pain and anxiety, not to mention alter our mood. And the faster food gets to our brain, the greater our response: Moss reports that cigarette smoke takes about 10 seconds to rouse the brain via the bloodstream, while sugar on the tongue gets there in half a second, with salt and fat not far behind. While the brain is alerted by signals from 10,000 taste buds on the tongue, we also have 10 million smell receptors in our nasal cavity, not to mention a trigeminal nerve in the roof of our mouth that recognizes fat and a stomach that also senses sugar.
Moss borrows a simplistic analogy from addiction specialists to describe what he calls the “go brain” (which drives our desire for things we want and like) and the “stop brain” (which examines our decisions and weighs the benefits and risks) – although these functions cannot be attributed to any precise region because our brains are like the conductor of an orchestra, working in concert with many players.
Problem is that the “stop brain” is overridden by triggers all too prevalent in the modern world such as stress and distraction. Hunger, of course, interrupts that sober second thought, as do some of the key attributes of processed food that manufacturers are only too happy to deliver: flavour, cost, availability, variety and speed of acquisition.
“Our overarching goal has been getting more fuel for the least amount of work,” Moss writes. “If our energy output is viewed as the cost of obtaining food, then we learned to love the cheap and easy.”
One of the most fascinating chapters in the book is about memory and how it plays into the allure of food, starting with childhood associations. Moss got a taste of that when he visited a Kellogg’s plant in Michigan and walked by a vat of failed Pop-Tarts. “The aroma that came across the factory floor hit me and took me back to that very last Pop-Tart I had as a latchkey kid.”
In neurological terms, those Pop-Tarts were a cue, and even a whiff of cinnamon or a McDonald’s billboard can trigger a response in someone who associates them with pleasure. “As much as we are what we eat,” Moss writes, “we are what we remember.”
Childhood memories, particularly those formed in adolescence, stick around longer, as do those associated with “family and friends and good times,” Moss writes. Our food preferences don’t even matter that much. As Purdue University researcher Richard Mattes told Moss, “The fact is we like what we eat more than we eat what we like.”
Moss illustrates again and again how the food industry has played a cat-and-mouse game with our bodies and brains. The chemists in labs called flavour houses can imitate everything from the char on a burger to pumpkin spice, which was added to the Starbucks latte lineup in 2003. It has as many as 80 chemical elements, like cyclotenes, which impart “a toasted, maple-like smell” and, “the most seductive of these,” fake vanilla, which is now added to more than 18,000 products. These additives are called “artificial and natural flavours” in the ingredients list. “We can’t know what chemicals are being used in the food we eat,” Moss writes, “though the brain sure does.”
“We Like What We Eat More Than We Eat What We Like”
When the processed food industry figured out we were predisposed to sweet food, they added more than 60 kinds of sugar to everything from ketchup to yogurt, “creating in us the expectation that everything should be cloying,” Moss writes. When we got wise to how much we were consuming in forms like high-fructose corn syrup, they gave us artificial sweeteners like sucralose, which some studies suggest “might not help us lose weight at all, or might even cause us to gain weight,” he says in the book.
While our biology partly explains why obesity has exploded in the past 40 years to the point where an estimated 650 million people – about seven per cent of the world’s population – are more than 35 pounds heavier than average, while another 1.2 billion – or 15 per cent – are overweight, Moss says the other half of the equation is the proliferation of cheap, calorie-dense, convenient food available 24-7 in endless iterations. Grocery stores went from stocking an average of 6,000 products in 1980 to about 33,000 today. Snacking is now a fourth meal, with 580 calories a day coming from what we eat in between breakfast, lunch and dinner.
“For the most part, the $1.5 trillion processed food industry rose to power through its relentless pursuit and manipulation of our instinctual desires,” he writes.
The good news is we are smart and “We can scheme, too,” Moss writes. We can make our own spaghetti sauce in as little as 10 minutes from canned tomatoes, olive oil, garlic and dried or fresh basil. When we get bored with our repertoire, we can add sardines and Aleppo pepper to avocado toast. When we get home from the grocery store, we can put cookies in a jar where they will lose some of their attraction. And Hooked sets out lots of reasons why diets don’t work, so Moss says to remember that exercise is good, too; it releases endorphins in your brain that can give you a high not unlike a sugar rush.
Oregon Research Institute psychologist Eric Stice talked to Moss about “changing what we value in food,” by stopping in front of the Starbucks bakery display and, rather than agonizing over whether to get the blueberry or the petite vanilla scone, visualizing that treat clogging our arteries or ruining our bikini bods, which “turns down the reward circuitry [in our brains] and turns up the brake.”
In the meantime, watch out for figs. According to Hooked, they’re poised to become the food industry’s next big flavour booster and, at 75 calories per fruit, they have a hit of sugar that will have your brain begging for more. As one of the first agricultural crops dating back to 9400 BC in the Jordan Valley, it will evoke memories of the Middle East for some.
For me, all it took was a package of Fig Newtons. When I chanced upon them in a grocery store recently, they transported me to the 1970s and our home at 784 Manchester Rd. in London, Ont., where my mom – who wasn’t big on baking – would buy them for a treat, and no one was happier to see them than my father. My parents died more than 20 years ago, but those cookies conjured them up out of thin air. When I snapped out of my reverie, I put them in my cart and headed to the checkout.
This story, “Gluttons for Punishment,” originally appeared in the April/May 2021 issue of Zoomer Magazine.