Szymanczyk was speaking in the context of smoking. But a fascinating new book by Michael Moss, an investigative journalist and best-selling author, argues that the tobacco executive’s definition of addiction could apply to our relationship with another group of products that Philip Morris sold and manufactured for decades: highly processed foods.
In his new book, Hooked, Moss explores the science behind addiction and builds a case that food companies have painstakingly engineered processed foods to hijack the reward circuitry in our brains, causing us to overeat and helping to fuel a global epidemic of obesity and chronic disease. Moss suggests that processed foods like cheeseburgers, potato chips and ice cream are not only addictive, but that they can be even more addictive than alcohol, tobacco and drugs. The book draws on internal industry documents and interviews with industry insiders to argue that some food companies in the past couple of decades became aware of the addictive nature of their products and took drastic steps to avoid accountability, such as shutting down important research into sugary foods and spearheading laws preventing people from suing food companies for damages.
In another cynical move, Moss writes, food companies beginning in the late 1970s started buying a slew of popular diet companies, allowing them to profit off our attempts to lose the weight we gained from eating their products. Heinz, the processed food giant, bought Weight Watchers in 1978 for $72 million. Unilever, which sells Klondike bars and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, paid $2.3 billion for SlimFast in 2000. Nestle, which makes chocolate bars and Hot Pockets, purchased Jenny Craig in 2006 for $600 million. And in 2010 the private equity firm that owns Cinnabon and Carvel ice cream purchased Atkins Nutritionals, the company that sells low-carb bars, shakes and snacks. Most of these diet brands were later sold to other parent companies. “The food industry blocked us in the courts from filing lawsuits claiming addiction; they started controlling the science in problematic ways, and they took control of the diet industry,” Moss said in an interview. “I’ve been crawling through the underbelly of the processed food industry for 10 years and I continue to be stunned by the depths of the deviousness of their strategy to not just tap into our basic instincts, but to exploit our attempts to gain control of our habits.”
A former reporter for The New York Times and recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, Moss first delved into the world of the processed food industry in 2013 with the publication of “Salt Sugar Fat.” The book explained how companies formulate junk foods to achieve a “bliss point” that makes them irresistible and market those products using tactics borrowed from the tobacco industry. Yet after writing the book, Moss was not convinced that processed foods could be addictive. “I had tried to avoid the word addiction when I was writing ‘Salt Sugar Fat,’” he said. “I thought it was totally ludicrous. How anyone could compare Twinkies to crack cocaine was beyond me.”
But as he dug into the science that shows how processed foods affect the brain, he was swayed. One crucial element that influences the addictive nature of a substance and whether or not we consume it compulsively is how quickly it excites the brain. The faster it hits our reward circuitry, the stronger its impact.
O’Connor is a reporter covering health for NYT©2020
The New York Times