Exploiting the taste bud: The industrial science behind creating irresistible food

iStockphoto

In 1999, Minneapolis was the site of a top-secret meeting. The people attending would normally not choose to be in the same room. They were the CEOs of major food companies: Kraft, General Mills, Cargill, Nestlé, Nabisco, Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola, Mars and Kellogg’s. They had been called together because America was getting fatter, faster than ever. A crisis was looming and blame could end up on the foods they manufactured.

This is how Michael Moss, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter for The New York Times, begins his book Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. In it, Moss examined the industrial science behind creating irresistible food.

Lynne Rossetto Kasper: All of these CEOs in the room were told what was evolving at that point: a health crisis of obesity in the U.S. How did they react?

Michael Moss
Michael Moss (Tony Cenicola)

Michael Moss: One of the remarkable things about that meeting: It was one of their own who got up to give them this bad news. He was armed with 114 slides laying responsibility for the obesity crisis at their feet and urging, pleading with them really to collectively do the right thing. From his perspective, the meeting was an utter failure.

The CEOs acted defensively. They argued that, "Look, we're already conscious of nutrition as we are of convenience and low prices. We offer people choices. We have low-fat this, low-sugar that, and most of our food has to taste good." They left the meeting and they basically went back to what they do.

These companies, I don't view them as evil empires that intentionally set out to make this country obese or otherwise ill. The problem lies in their collective zeal to do what companies do, which is make more money by selling more products. If those products can be healthier, they will do that. They have nothing against that.

Over time, though, what's tended to happen is that companies will put out what they call line extensions -- a healthier version of their main line product. The issue that Michael Mudd, the executive from Kraft, was urging them to look at was the main line products and the overall amounts of salt, sugar, fat and calories that were going into the products that sold the most. That was the issue in 1999.

LRK: These companies are making money; that's what a company does. But the responsibility for deciding what's healthy for us or what isn't, that's in the hands of the consumer, right?

MM: You're absolutely right. But you have to remember: Walking into a grocery store, the playing field is anything but level. The companies are doing everything they can to make you make a spontaneous decision. That's why you see soda coolers at the checkout counter.

So, yes, we have some responsibility, but we're up against a very smart, cunning formulation and marketing machinery of the process industry. It's not a fair fight. Salt, sugar and fat to them are the holy grail. They know that when they hit those amounts perfectly, they will send us over the moon.

I spent time with a legend in the industry, Howard Moskowitz, who walked me through his creation of a recent soda for Dr Pepper. He actually helped coin the term “the bliss point,” which is the perfect amount of sugar in any food that will appeal to us the most. He had to get to the perfect soda flavor that would be a hit. He had to concoct 61 different flavors of sweetness, each slightly different.  He submitted them to 3,000 consumer taste tests, threw the data in his computer, and did his high math thing to come up with the very perfect one.

But one of the issues is not that soda is sweet, but that so many products in the grocery store are now sweet that didn't used to be. As one food industry scientist said to me, the companies are exploiting the biology of the child especially. Children are hard-wired for sugar, so now you see breads that are sweet, pasta sauces are sweet and low-fat yogurt can have as much sugar per serving as ice cream.

One of the smartest nutrition policy people I know is Marion Nestle at New York University. She said to me that she thinks one of the driving forces here was Silicon Valley. In the early ’80s, tech stocks became so hugely popular with Wall Street that Wall Street in turn looked to the blue chips, looked to the food industry, and said, “Hey, guys, you're lagging here. What can you do for us?” That's when food companies became much more attuned and under pressure on profits.

It's a really important point moving forward here because even when these companies do the right thing -- Campbell's soup has done it, trying to reduce salt; Kraft has done an amazing series of things to try to reduce the nutrient loads in its products -- Wall Street is there breathing down their neck, making sure that the companies understand the profits come first. These companies in many ways are more hooked on salt, sugar and fat than we are.

They are between a rock and a hard place because the ingredients are not just in there to make the foods tasty. They're there acting as preservatives so the food can stay on the shelves for weeks or months at a time and they're there to avoid the use of more costly ingredients like fresh herbs and spices. Salt especially is a miracle ingredient to these companies -- it masks some of the off flavors that will get into food processing. They've been adding so much salt, sugar and fat to their products that yes, they can dial back by 10, 15 percent. But when they start going deeper to really make some meaningful changes in the nutritional profile, they're finding that they drop off a cliff, both in technical terms and in taste.

LRK: How has writing this book changed the way you eat?

MM: I have two boys, 8 and 13, who are walking bliss points for sugar. My wife and I are basically trying to engage them in a discussion about nutrition so that they'll really want to do this. A cool example happened the other day. My wife said, “Look guys, why don't we try to limit our cereal to those brands with 5 grams of sugar or less per serving.” Now when we go in the store or shopping with the boys, they will pull the boxes off the shelf, look at the fine print and do the math. Interestingly, I find that when you engage them in the discussion, they're more apt to like those lower sugar cereals. They're part of the discussion and kids are smart.

Also challenge this notion of convenience, which I think is over-hyped. I think there are any number of products around the grocery store that we actually really don't need to be dependent on. 

Featured recipe

Top Recipes

Featured recipe