It’s an unfortunate reality that every year, your average American consumers thirty-three pounds of cheese, seventy pounds of sugar and over 3 kilograms of salt. One in three adults is obese, as well as one in five children, while the processed food industry represents $1 trillion in sales in the U.S. alone. Michael Moss is a Pulitzer-winning journalist for the NY Times has studied the industry for the last couple of years and written a book called Salt Sugar Fat. An extended excerpt of the book was published in NY Times Magazine.
Processed food is so enticing because researchers at food companies engineer foods to satisfy all of consumers needs.
In the process of product optimization, food engineers alter a litany of variables with the sole intent of finding the most perfect version (or versions) of a product. Ordinary consumers are paid to spend hours sitting in rooms where they touch, feel, sip, smell, swirl and taste whatever product is in question. Their opinions are dumped into a computer, and the data are sifted and sorted through a statistical method called conjoint analysis, which determines what features will be most attractive to consumers…. Even for jobs in which the only concern is taste and the variables are limited to the ingredients, endless charts and graphs will come spewing out of [the researcher's] computer. The mathematical model maps out the ingredients to the sensory perceptions these ingredients create, so [researchers] can just dial a new product. This is the engineering approach.
The allure of designed food comes from the need it addresses.
Eating real meals had become a thing of the past. Baby boomers, especially, seemed to have greatly cut down on regular meals. They were skipping breakfast when they had early-morning meetings. They skipped lunch when they then needed to catch up on work because of those meetings. They skipped dinner when their kids stayed out late or grew up and moved out of the house. And when they skipped these meals, they replaced them with snacks…. This led to the next realization, that baby boomers did not represent “a category that is mature, with no growth. This is a category that has huge growth potential.”
The food technicians stopped worrying about inventing new products and instead embraced the industry’s most reliable method for getting consumers to buy more: the line extension. The classic Lay’s potato chips were joined by Salt & Vinegar, Salt & Pepper and Cheddar & Sour Cream. They put out Chili-Cheese-flavored Fritos, and Cheetos were transformed into 21 varieties. Frito-Lay had a formidable research complex near Dallas, where nearly 500 chemists, psychologists and technicians conducted research that cost up to $30 million a year, and the science corps focused intense amounts of resources on questions of crunch, mouth feel and aroma for each of these items. Their tools included a $40,000 device that simulated a chewing mouth to test and perfect the chips, discovering things like the perfect break point: people like a chip that snaps with about four pounds of pressure per square inch.
“This,” Steven Witherly (a food scientist) said, “is one of the most marvelously constructed foods on the planet, in terms of pure pleasure.” He ticked off a dozen attributes of the Cheetos that make the brain say more. But the one he focused on most was the puff’s uncanny ability to melt in the mouth. “It’s called vanishing caloric density,” Witherly said. “If something melts down quickly, your brain thinks that there’s no calories in it… you can just keep eating it forever.”
Moss also writes about how Oscar Mayer was able to resell an old product as Lunchables and successfully command the psychological needs of both parents hard-pressed to make lunch for their kids, and the kids themselves by giving them control of how they build their lunches.
He assembled a team of about 15 people with varied skills, from design to food science to advertising, to create something completely new — a convenient prepackaged lunch that would have as its main building block the company’s sliced bologna and ham… They added a handful of cracker rounds to the package. Using cheese was the next obvious move, given its increased presence in processed foods. But what kind of cheese would work? Natural Cheddar, which they started off with, crumbled and didn’t slice very well, so they moved on to processed varieties, which could bend and be sliced and would last forever, or they could knock another two cents off per unit by using an even lesser product called “cheese food,” which had lower scores than processed cheese in taste tests.
the next question was how to expand the franchise, which they did by turning to one of the cardinal rules in processed food: When in doubt, add sugar. “Lunchables With Dessert is a logical extension,” an Oscar Mayer official reported to Philip Morris executives in early 1991…. A year later, the dessert Lunchable morphed into the Fun Pack, which would come with a Snickers bar, a package of M&M’s or a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, as well as a sugary drink. The Lunchables team started by using Kool-Aid and cola and then Capri Sun after Philip Morris added that drink to its stable of brands.
When I asked Geoffrey Bible, former C.E.O. of Philip Morris, about this shift toward more salt, sugar and fat in meals for kids, he smiled and noted that even in its earliest incarnation, Lunchables was held up for criticism. “One article said something like, ‘If you take Lunchables apart, the most healthy item in it is the napkin.’ ”
Well, they did have a good bit of fat, I offered. “You bet,” he said. “Plus cookies.”
The prevailing attitude among the company’s food managers — through the 1990s, at least, before obesity became a more pressing concern — was one of supply and demand. “People could point to these things and say, ‘They’ve got too much sugar, they’ve got too much salt,’ ” Bible said. “Well, that’s what the consumer wants, and we’re not putting a gun to their head to eat it. That’s what they want. If we give them less, they’ll buy less, and the competitor will get our market. So you’re sort of trapped.”
The Lunchables team would delve into adolescent psychology to discover that it wasn’t the food in the trays that excited the kids; it was the feeling of power it brought to their lives. As Bob Eckert, then the C.E.O. of Kraft, put it in 1999: “Lunchables aren’t about lunch. It’s about kids being able to put together what they want to eat, anytime, anywhere.”
Kraft’s early Lunchables campaign targeted mothers. They might be too distracted by work to make a lunch, but they loved their kids enough to offer them this prepackaged gift. But as the focus swung toward kids, Saturday-morning cartoons started carrying an ad that offered a different message: “All day, you gotta do what they say,” the ads said. “But lunchtime is all yours.”
With this marketing strategy in place and pizza Lunchables — the crust in one compartment, the cheese, pepperoni and sauce in others — proving to be a runaway success, the entire world of fast food suddenly opened up for Kraft to pursue. They came out with a Mexican-themed Lunchables called Beef Taco Wraps; a Mini Burgers Lunchables; a Mini Hot Dog Lunchable, which also happened to provide a way for Oscar Mayer to sell its wieners. By 1999, pancakes — which included syrup, icing, Lifesavers candy and Tang, for a whopping 76 grams of sugar — and waffles were, for a time, part of the Lunchables franchise as well.
The processed food industry attempts to address the most basic needs of consumers by creating the perfectly convenient food that also causes bliss and rapid consumption. As a consequence, the foods become increasingly synthetic and bogged down by salt, fat, and sugar. But the reach of designed food extends beyond taste alone. Food items are engineered to be psychologically addicting and rewarding despite the actual effect they have on the body. So next time you’re eating a bag of Cheetos and can’t stop, know that it’s because a food engineer at Frito-Lay is damn good at his job.