Engineering the recipe for obesity

Posted Online: March 29, 2013, 2:34 pm
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By Michael Smerconish
I'm certain Sarah Palin spoke for many when she tweeted upon hearing the news that a New York judge had prevented implementation of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's efforts to regulate sugary drinks:

"Victory in NYC for liberty-loving soda drinkers. To politicians with too much time on their hands we say: Govt, stay out of my refrigerator!"

No doubt those "liberty lovers" view dietary habits as a matter of free will and personal responsibility. If only things were so simple. There's no question that most of us can do something about our weight. Two solutions are as old as time: Exercise and make your own dinner. But the science and research being used by food manufacturers are making it harder to stay non-obese, let alone get thin.

If you want to know why one in five kids, and one in three adults, is considered clinically obese, while 24 million Americans are afflicted by type 2 diabetes, and an additional 79 million have pre-diabetes, it's partly because the food manufacturers have your number. They've succeeded in getting you hooked on foods that are readily accessible and inexpensive. So argues Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Moss in a new book called "Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. Moss calls those key ingredients the "pillars of processed foods," and told me that the "most perfect version" of a food in many palates is often a combination of the three.

It's not that the food giants are nefarious. It's that they've gotten too good at what they do. The food they're making is hard to resist, at a time when too many are increasingly sedentary. Consider that, in 2012, Taco Bell sold 375 million Doritos Locos Tacos Nacho — that averages out to more than one million per day.

OK, so we all know fast food is best eaten as a last resort. But even when you're running through a supermarket after work on the way home to have dinner, you don't stop to appreciate that the product you are thumbing was literally hatched in a lab by a process called "optimization," where food engineers alter a litany of variables and use science and mathematics to come up with the very perfect formulation that will "send people over the moon," according to Moss.

Not only does this processed food taste good; it has a long shelf life and is inexpensively produced, creating $1 trillion per year in grocery sales in the United States. To Moss, an even more revealing figure: 60,000 — the number of different products found in large supermarkets.

Moss details the sophistication of the methods used by Howard Moskowitz, who holds a Ph.D. in experimental psychology from Harvard, as he worked for Cadbury Schweppes to create a line extension for Dr Pepper:

"Howard, a legendary figure in food science, walked me through his recent creation of a Dr Pepper flavor, and it was extraordinary the effort that he put into coming up with a version, a formula that was guaranteed to fly off the shelf. He doesn't call his food invention a food invention; he calls it engineering, and for a great reason."

Looking for the "bliss point" involved 61 distinct formulas, which were then tasted nearly 4,000 times in four cities. That's how Cherry Vanilla Dr Pepper was born.

"The food companies really convincingly argue they have not intended to make America obese or otherwise ill, and they consider nutrition to be part of their agenda, along with convenience and price, and that any one single product can't be blamed for the obesity crisis or diabetes or high blood pressure, et cetera, but collectively there is no question that the companies themselves now know and hold themselves accountable for at least part of the obesity crisis, and I think they're at a tipping point here."

Moss is optimistic that people such as Moskowitz who know how to invent foods will now turn their attention to making foods healthier. In the meantime, there are steps we can all take, besides diet and exercise.

First, you need to appreciate the science and research that have been committed toward getting you hooked. Second, act on the empowerment — you still decide what to buy and what to put in your mouth. Third, attempt to navigate the labels, specifically the box titled "Nutrition Facts," mindful that a "serving size" might not match your own habits (one Oreos serving size equals three cookies; one Pringles serving size equals 16 crisps). Fourth, not everything that sounds healthy is.

"Some yogurts have nearly as much sugar as ice cream, and yet they carry this halo of health, and I think you can see this on a number of fronts in the grocery store," Moss told me. "Fruit is something you're seeing splashed across the labels increasingly, and when you look at the details often it's a smidgen of fruit added or fruit concentrate along with a whole lot of sugar. So companies naturally try to market their products with their best foot forward, and to play to consumer concerns, and the halo of health from yogurt and fruit are great examples of that."

One final caveat for boomers. Moss told me a fascinating story about Frito-Lay. Its marketers had initially assumed that, as baby boomers aged, their snack consumption would decline. Instead, they figured out in the 1980s that we started eating fewer meals and began snacking more.

They know us better than we know ourselves. And it's making an already difficult task harder.
Michael Smerconish writes for The Philadelphia Inquirer;


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