Are Junk Food Makers Worse than Tobacco Industry Giants? How Fritos, Coke and Lunchables Vie for Addicts

Categories: Health

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nytIt’s far from an accident that you’re addicted to chips—or soda or pre-made lunch packs or probably any other processed-food you can think of, explains a very un-sugar-coated New York Times Magazine investigative piece set to hit stands this weekend.

In “The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food,” previewed online now and adapted from his forthcoming book “Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us,” Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Michael Moss delves deep into the long history of how snack food and beverage makers scheme with a mix of science, willful ignorance, and masterful marketing to sell mountains of their salty, sugary products.

“What I found, over four years of research and reporting, was a conscious effort—taking place in labs and marketing meetings and grocery-store aisles—to get people hooked on foods that are convenient and inexpensive,” writes Moss, adding that he talked with more than 300 current or former employees of the processed-food industry, “from scientists to marketers to C.E.O.’s.”

Among the high-blood-pressure inducing revelations in Moss’s 14-page online story, presented in a series of case studies, are:

•Kraft Lunchables pre-packed lunches, loaded with sugar and sodium, and bringing in nearly $1 billion for Oscar Meyer over the years, were financially backed by Philip Morris when they were created and marketed to harried moms in the 1980s. Though they’ve been criticized for being unhealthy to children, “Well, that’s what the consumer wants, and we’re not putting a gun to their head to eat it,” admits Geoffrey Bible, former CEO of Philip Morris. “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.”

•Monica Drane, daughter of Lunchables creator Bob Drane (who was tapped by Oscar Meyer in the 1980s) and a mother of three kids ages 10, 14 and 17, is not a consumer of the product. “I don’t think my kids have ever eaten a Lunchable,” she says. “They know they exist and that Grandpa Bob invented them. But we eat very healthfully.”

•The early Lunchables campaign targeted mothers, who might have been too busy to make a lunch, “but they loved their kids enough to offer them this prepackaged gift.” But a new marketing strategy in 1999 said, essentially, that kids are in charge of lunches, not parents. “All day, you gotta do what they say,” said the ads, shown during Saturday-morning cartoon time. “But lunchtime is all yours.”

•After the late ’80s, when Frito-Lay—the nearly $3-billion-a-year manufacturer of Lay’s, Doritos, Cheetos and Fritos—took a financial hit because of reports that salty snacks led to cardiovascular disease, researchers went into overdrive to churn out new, addictive hits. In their Dallas complex, “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,” Moss writes. “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.”

•One of the most genius Frito-Lay products, according to food scientist Steven Witherly, is the puffed Cheeto. That’s because of its beloved ability to melt in one’s mouth. “It’s called vanishing caloric density,” Witherly told Moss. “If something melts down quickly, your brain thinks that there’s no calories in it . . . you can just keep eating it forever.”

•Robert I-San Lin, chief scientist for Frito-Lay from 1974 to 1982, told Moss he tried in vain to get the company to make its products healthier during his tenure, and regrets how much time the company has spent trying to sell its snack foods to the public. “In his view,” Moss wrote, “three decades had been lost, time that he and a lot of other smart scientists could have spent searching for ways to ease the addiction to salt, sugar and fat.” He added, “I couldn’t do much about it. I feel so sorry for the public.”

•Coca-Cola, under fire from anti-obesity campaigns and other health initiatives in the late ’90s, began aggressively marketing its sugary drink to poor, vulnerable areas, Moss writes, “like New Orleans — where people were drinking twice as much Coke as the national average — or Rome, Ga., where the per capita intake was nearly three Cokes a day.”

•Coke also targeted Brazil and its ultra-poor favelas, by repackaging the soft drink into smaller, more affordable bottles. On one trip to Brazil, Jeffrey Dunn, then-president and chief operating officer in both North and South America, had a realization, he told Moss. “A voice in my head says, ‘These people need a lot of things, but they don’t need a Coke.’ I almost threw up.” He tried steering the company in a more health-conscious direction, but was fired. In recent years, Dunn’s worked to market carrots as a snack. “I’m paying my karmic debt,” he explained.

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