Home Food 101 Bliss Point: 6 Reasons Erika Was Right About The “Science of Addictive Food”

Bliss Point: 6 Reasons Erika Was Right About The “Science of Addictive Food”

by Erika Nicole Kendall

When I saw it, I had the same reaction that many of you had.

But then, I did a little dance in my chair, because I love – love – being proven right. And, as my best friend Ashley would tell you I’ve been saying for years, “No one listens to Erika until Erika is proven right.” Seriously.

Grant Cornett for The New York Times

Grant Cornett for The New York Times

I’m posting massive excerpts from the almost 14-page article, and I’ll try to keep them short, but seriously. When it comes to this, you want to read the entirety of the post. If you ever needed encouragement to kick the processed food habit, this NYTimes Magazine cover storyan excerpt from this book – will give it to you. Hell, it’s got me wanting to triple-check my own pantry, and I know there’s nothing in there.

If you’re still planning on skimming – and I wouldn’t blame you – then the important parts are in bold for you.

That being said, I’m going to do my usual. Y’all know how it goes:

1) When I said that processed food manufacturers go to extraordinary lengths to create the most palatable (read: addicting) foods that’d cater to the widest group of people, did you believe me? Well…

Stung by the rejection, Cadbury Schweppes in 2004 turned to a food-industry legend named Howard Moskowitz. Moskowitz, who studied mathematics and holds a Ph.D. in experimental psychology from Harvard, runs a consulting firm in White Plains, where for more than three decades he has “optimized” a variety of products for Campbell Soup, General Foods, Kraft and PepsiCo. “I’ve optimized soups,” Moskowitz told me. “I’ve optimized pizzas. I’ve optimized salad dressings and pickles. In this field, I’m a game changer.”

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. Moskowitz likes to imagine that his computer is divided into silos, in which each of the attributes is stacked. But it’s not simply a matter of comparing Color 23 with Color 24. In the most complicated projects, Color 23 must be combined with Syrup 11 and Packaging 6, and on and on, in seemingly infinite combinations. 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 Moskowitz’s computer. “The mathematical model maps out the ingredients to the sensory perceptions these ingredients create,” he told me, “so I can just dial a new product. This is the engineering approach.”

Moskowitz’s work on Prego spaghetti sauce was memorialized in a 2004 presentation by the author Malcolm Gladwell at the TED conference in Monterey, Calif.: “After . . . months and months, he had a mountain of data about how the American people feel about spaghetti sauce. . . . And sure enough, if you sit down and you analyze all this data on spaghetti sauce, you realize that all Americans fall into one of three groups. There are people who like their spaghetti sauce plain. There are people who like their spaghetti sauce spicy. And there are people who like it extra-chunky. And of those three facts, the third one was the most significant, because at the time, in the early 1980s, if you went to a supermarket, you would not find extra-chunky spaghetti sauce. And Prego turned to Howard, and they said, ‘Are you telling me that one-third of Americans crave extra-chunky spaghetti sauce, and yet no one is servicing their needs?’ And he said, ‘Yes.’ And Prego then went back and completely reformulated their spaghetti sauce and came out with a line of extra-chunky that immediately and completely took over the spaghetti-sauce business in this country. . . . That is Howard’s gift to the American people. . . . He fundamentally changed the way the food industry thinks about making you happy.”

These companies have a vested interest in making you happy by any means necessary, because “making you happy” means turning you into a repeat customer…by loading you up on the sugar, fat and salt. You don’t even need to listen to me on that one; check the label. It’s that simple. Speaking of which…

2) Remember when I told you processed food purveyors are the source of the vast majority of your sugar, fat and salt problems? Well…

Well, yes and no. One thing Gladwell didn’t mention is that the food industry already knew some things about making people happy — and it started with sugar. Many of the Prego sauces — whether cheesy, chunky or light — have one feature in common: The largest ingredient, after tomatoes, is sugar. A mere half-cup of Prego Traditional, for instance, has the equivalent of more than two teaspoons of sugar, as much as two-plus Oreo cookies. It also delivers one-third of the sodium recommended for a majority of American adults for an entire day. In making these sauces, Campbell supplied the ingredients, including the salt, sugar and, for some versions, fat, while Moskowitz supplied the optimization. “More is not necessarily better,” Moskowitz wrote in his own account of the Prego project. “As the sensory intensity (say, of sweetness) increases, consumers first say that they like the product more, but eventually, with a middle level of sweetness, consumers like the product the most (this is their optimum, or ‘bliss,’ point).”

Uh… huh. I guess.

Moving right along.

3) Remember when I told you that processed food was much more about preserving shelf life and cutting costs than anything else? Well…

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 wanted to add bread, naturally, because who ate bologna without it? But this presented a problem: There was no way bread could stay fresh for the two months their product needed to sit in warehouses or in grocery coolers. Crackers, however, could — so 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 cost dilemma was solved when Oscar Mayer merged with Kraft in 1989 and the company didn’t have to shop for cheese anymore; it got all the processed cheese it wanted from its new sister company, and at cost.


The trays flew off the grocery-store shelves. Sales hit a phenomenal $218 million in the first 12 months, more than anyone was prepared for. This only brought Drane his next crisis. The production costs were so high that they were losing money with each tray they produced. So Drane flew to New York, where he met with Philip Morris officials who promised to give him the money he needed to keep it going. “The hard thing is to figure out something that will sell,” he was told. “You’ll figure out how to get the cost right.” Projected to lose $6 million in 1991, the trays instead broke even; the next year, they earned $8 million.

With production costs trimmed and profits coming in, 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. The “target” remained the same as it was for regular Lunchables — “busy mothers” and “working women,” ages 25 to 49 — and the “enhanced taste” would attract shoppers who had grown bored with the current trays. 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.

Eventually, a line of the trays, appropriately called Maxed Out, was released that had as many as nine grams of saturated fat, or nearly an entire day’s recommended maximum for kids, with up to two-thirds of the max for sodium and 13 teaspoons of sugar.

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.” (Bible would later press Kraft to reconsider its reliance on salt, sugar and fat.)

When it came to Lunchables, they did try to add more healthful ingredients. Back at the start, Drane experimented with fresh carrots but quickly gave up on that, since fresh components didn’t work within the constraints of the processed-food system, which typically required weeks or months of transport and storage before the food arrived at the grocery store. Later, a low-fat version of the trays was developed, using meats and cheese and crackers that were formulated with less fat, but it tasted inferior, sold poorly and was quickly scrapped.

…but we’re eating that. And we’re expecting our children to eat that, grow up, and be healthy. I’m sorry – why are we still looking anywhere other than squarely at processed food for blame in the rise in obesity? Hell, it’s clear that they blame themselves… why can’t we blame them, too?

4) Speaking of kids… remember when I told you that these companies have marketing firms that specifically target your kids in ways that encourage them to become early on brand loyalists? (Which benefits them because then those kids grow up and buy their foods for their kids?)

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.

Annual sales kept climbing, past $500 million, past $800 million; at last count, including sales in Britain, they were approaching the $1 billion mark. Lunchables was more than a hit; it was now its own category. Eventually, more than 60 varieties of Lunchables and other brands of trays would show up in the grocery stores. In 2007, Kraft even tried a Lunchables Jr. for 3- to 5-year-olds.

In the trove of records that document the rise of the Lunchables and the sweeping change it brought to lunchtime habits, I came across a photograph of Bob Drane’s daughter, which he had slipped into the Lunchables presentation he showed to food developers. The picture was taken on Monica Drane’s wedding day in 1989, and she was standing outside the family’s home in Madison, a beautiful bride in a white wedding dress, holding one of the brand-new yellow trays.

During the course of reporting, I finally had a chance to ask her about it. Was she really that much of a fan? “There must have been some in the fridge,” she told me. “I probably just took one out before we went to the church. My mom had joked that it was really like their fourth child, my dad invested so much time and energy on it.”

Monica Drane had three of her own children by the time we spoke, ages 10, 14 and 17. “I don’t think my kids have ever eaten a Lunchable,” she told me. “They know they exist and that Grandpa Bob invented them. But we eat very healthfully.”

Oh, so you don’t even eat the stuff you make, because you “eat very healthfully?” Okay.

There’s an extra piece, here:

Today Bob Drane is still talking to kids about what they like to eat, but his approach has changed. He volunteers with a nonprofit organization that seeks to build better communications between school kids and their parents, and right in the mix of their problems, alongside the academic struggles, is childhood obesity. Drane has also prepared a précis on the food industry that he used with medical students at the University of Wisconsin. And while he does not name his Lunchables in this document, and cites numerous causes for the obesity epidemic, he holds the entire industry accountable. “What do University of Wisconsin M.B.A.’s learn about how to succeed in marketing?” his presentation to the med students asks. “Discover what consumers want to buy and give it to them with both barrels. Sell more, keep your job! How do marketers often translate these ‘rules’ into action on food? Our limbic brains love sugar, fat, salt. . . . So formulate products to deliver these. Perhaps add low-cost ingredients to boost profit margins. Then ‘supersize’ to sell more. . . . And advertise/promote to lock in ‘heavy users.’ Plenty of guilt to go around here!”


5) Remember when I told you that certain “health halos” – stickers, markers and labels used to denote something as “healthy” to a consumer – were being manipulated for profit, and couldn’t be trusted? Well..

The Frito-Lay executives also spoke of the company’s ongoing pursuit of a “designer sodium,” which they hoped, in the near future, would take their sodium loads down by 40 percent. No need to worry about lost sales there, the company’s C.E.O., Al Carey, assured their investors. The boomers would see less salt as the green light to snack like never before.

There’s a paradox at work here. On the one hand, reduction of sodium in snack foods is commendable. On the other, these changes may well result in consumers eating more. “The big thing that will happen here is removing the barriers for boomers and giving them permission to snack,” Carey said. The prospects for lower-salt snacks were so amazing, he added, that the company had set its sights on using the designer salt to conquer the toughest market of all for snacks: schools. He cited, for example, the school-food initiative championed by Bill Clinton and the American Heart Association, which is seeking to improve the nutrition of school food by limiting its load of salt, sugar and fat. “Imagine this,” Carey said. “A potato chip that tastes great and qualifies for the Clinton-A.H.A. alliance for schools . . . . We think we have ways to do all of this on a potato chip, and imagine getting that product into schools, where children can have this product and grow up with it and feel good about eating it.”

That’s right… plotting on getting products in to them when they’re kids, so they can “grow up with it and feel good about eating it.”

6) I’m going to save you from another extensive excerpt, but I am going to say this: grab a post-it note and a pen, and take a running tally of how many times you see “sugar, fat and salt” referenced as “palatable” or even “addictive.”

One more excerpt, for the road:

[…]While at Frito-Lay, Lin and other company scientists spoke openly about the country’s excessive consumption of sodium and the fact that, as Lin said to me on more than one occasion, “people get addicted to salt.”

When I told you that leaving processed food behind and embracing clean eating was how I regained my control, my sense of self-control and developed my understanding of “will power,” this is why. This is what the “corporate” end of that struggle looks like, and it only furthers my belief that I’m not the only one who may have to make this kind of a tough decision.

I’m gonna go and come back to this, but on this note, I’m curious; did you read the entire article? What were your thoughts?

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kiesh February 22, 2013 - 4:24 PM

That photo and caption are so key. So, the food industry essentially comes up with various “drug” cocktails with the goal of sucking you in with at least ONE of em. Wow.

I fall into the category of being addicted to the salt flavor rather than sugar. Cookies, cakes, chocolate, etc don’t move me at all but those salty chips and such? Sheesh. I am slowly weening myself off of processed food.

Chelly February 22, 2013 - 5:14 PM

Hi Erika,

I read the entire excerpt you published here and I am not surprised. This doesn’t seem like an investigative report so my question is why has this tell-all article come out now? Did it go on to speak of any reform efforts?

I also found it interesting that Drane has shielded his own family from eating the stuff he is pushing on the rest of society. That is irresponsible! However, he is not the only one to blame. Although I could argue that drowning Joe and Jane Public and their kids in excessive advertising is psychologically like holding a gun to their heads, it is up to us to make conscious decisions about what we eat. But when they target us from birth it’s hard to know that we are unconscious.

When you have been raised on processed food it’s hard to change especially when you have to train yourself to make time for shopping trips, food prep and cooking.

It was also interesting to see the company collaborations and learn that Phillip Morris not only sells addictive nicotine tobacco sticks but addictive chemical-filled “food.”

It always scares me to learn that our kids are being targeted for a lifetime of destructive behavior. Is this really how you want to “keep your job”? It’s sad enough that the companies are pushing stuff like “cheese food” on the masses but knowing that they are searching for ways to outwit a policy that is trying to encourage our kids to eat healthy is just terribly scary.

Finally, I have to agree with you about finding freedom in clean eating. I am so glad that I found this blog. I was one of those kids who grew up in front of the T.V. both parents worked so most of our meals came from the restaurant or out of a box. I’ve gone through the cycles of joining weight loss programs and yo-yo dieting and often get frustrated, tired and then I quit. I believe that the difference is that with clean eating I gain knowledge about what will nourish my body not just make it full and I have control of where I buy food, what I put into my food and how much I eat. This allows me to become healthier and save money, and that is freedom.

Alisa February 22, 2013 - 5:16 PM

1. My son rides for Lunchables. He’s a healthy kid, very active and athletic, but he loves those things. NO MORE!! He also rides for Chef Boyardee. I no longer allow him to eat fast food. Looks like I’ll be cutting these things out, too.

2. I ate a bag of Doritoes on Monday. I have a very heathy, very organic diet normally, but I grabbed some Doritoes on the run because I was rushing and wanted a snack. Every day this week, today included, I have craved and consumed a bag of chips. And then I read this and see that salt is highly addictive. I also notice that I’m looking a lot more bloated lately than usual. It’s the salt, and I know it.

Thank you so much for sharing this article! I’m sure my kid will resent the lack of Lunchables and Ravioli, which were (until today) staples in our home, but I know it’s for the better that we get rid of them. I appreciate the insight!!

Tracie February 23, 2013 - 12:34 AM

Another great conversation starter Erika–thank you for sharing all you find. I think what gets me most up in arms about this is how folks like “Grandpa Bob” can make money hand over fist exploiting people in this way, but then get off scot free once they’re over it by simply giving a few lectures and seminars on the dangers of the industry. “Sir”, I think, “YOU WERE THE INDUSTRY OF WHICH YOU SPEAK.” It just really feels so unfair to me, but it’s like you say all the time–we have to be vigilant for ourselves, and to not expect these companies to do it for us, simple as that. Thanks again for posting!

Mamie February 25, 2013 - 2:00 AM

Foods marketed to children are predominantly high in sugar and fat, and as such are inconsistent with national dietary recommendations. It is really sad to see how in recent years, the food and beverage industry in the US has viewed children and adolescents as a major market force. As a result, children and adolescents are now the target of intense and specialized food marketing and advertising efforts. Food marketers are interested in youth as consumers because of their spending power, their purchasing influence, and as future adult consumers.

Mamie February 25, 2013 - 2:25 AM

“Speaking of kids… remember when I told you that these companies have marketing firms that specifically target your kids in ways that encourage them to become early on brand loyalists?”

You are right Erika,
Foods marketed to children are predominantly high in sugar and fat, and as such are inconsistent with national dietary recommendations. It is really sad to see how in recent years, the food and beverage industry in the US has viewed children and adolescents as a major market force. As a result, children and adolescents are now the target of intense and specialized food marketing and advertising efforts. Food marketers are interested in youth as consumers because of their spending power, their purchasing influence, and as future adult consumers.

Aria February 25, 2013 - 11:21 AM

So my mom and dad were right all along when they said that foods like Lunchables and Kid Cuisine were crap and refused to buy them. I can still remember the little penguin on the Kid Cuisine box and how cool I thought it was that you could cook a whole “meal” in the microwave. Back then I thought they wanted to deprive me of the awesome goodness of pre-packaged, processed foods that were advertised on T.V. In hindsight, I’m glad I wasn’t allowed to develop a taste for these “foods”, but as a child, I craved what I saw on T.V. and I can understand that it’s hard for parents to keep saying NO.

Kim February 28, 2013 - 4:01 PM

This is not a surprise, but it’s definitely interesting to hear about how they go about it. I definitely notice that times I do slip and have something processed it’s extremely hard to get back on course. My body is fighting with me the whole time. I don’t have kids – but I am really really determined to raise them without this junk when we do. I know that will be hard – I can’t control them 24/7. But I can do my best. I grew up with processed foods – lunchables, hamburger helper, and plenty of Ragu…and I am still paying for it. I can’t do that to my kids.

Christine March 1, 2013 - 2:11 PM

falls to the ground in tears….i love doritos

Tim Lee March 3, 2013 - 12:54 AM

I’m glad that this article came out. It helps show that lots of time, money and smarts have been used to precisely engineer food that drives the reptilian side of our brain into a feeding frenzy.

There’s evidence that this isn’t unique to humans. Domesticated and even wild animals are getting fatter if they have access to human processed food. (http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/29373/title/Animals-are-getting-fatter–too/)

There are lots of people who will say that food addiction is a choice. As if it’s as simple as choosing to go left or right.

They just don’t get it.

There’s a ton of genetic, mental and circumstantial factors that control what we do. Open up a psychology or marketing book and you’ll see a ton of examples on how to subtly influence a human being with something as simple as a word change.

So what are some possible solutions to the obesity epidemic?

Government Regulation? Eh…Maybe. But given the ideology and power struggles plus the huge amount of food lobby money pumped into Washington, it’s hard to imagine any meaningful change.

Education? Seems to work only a little. Every smoker, alcoholic, and overweight person knows what they’re doing is horrible. Yet they can’t stop.

More exercise? Helps. Feels good too. However, there’s evidence to show that exercise plays a small roll in weight loss. Makes sense. Work out all day then eat a ton of junk? That ain’t gon’ work.

Seems like there’s no easy solution.

However, I believe that there is a way to tame the overeating habit and that’s through…

Habit and Technology.

We can train ourselves and eventually get into a healthy habit. Yeah, this is much easier said than done. And that’s where technology comes in. You see, people are notoriously bad at keeping track and predicting anything. What did I eat for lunch? Uh, no idea.

However, through the use of technology we can better keep track of and even motivate ourselves to make better decisions. Our iPhone, Apps, Facebook, Twitter, and soon Google Glasses might be able to dramatically change how we eat.

The future is an exciting time to live in.

Heidi March 18, 2013 - 8:13 PM

It is a slow process in my home. My husband is the ultimate junkie and of course he brings it home. I am guilty as well on a lazy night I just want to pop something in quick so I but boxed something::(so sad for my kids who are developing a taste for it all. I am not going to give up like you say Erika I have to work on me first to be a great mom.

Jazz August 2, 2013 - 5:40 AM

I read all of it! Great article! Thank you for taking the time to post it. I think I may have consumed one or two lunchables in my childhood… never liked them that much, I guess I see now that that was a good thing 🙂 And as long as its up to me, my five year old won’t touch them either!

Chris August 17, 2013 - 10:01 AM

I read your whole post, and.. no surprises here. It still makes me so angry to think about. Especially early age brand loyalty. Yeah. I couldn’t even begin to tell you how many Lunchables I ate as a kid in the 90s. But even though I haven’t eaten one in years, I CAN still tell you EXACTLY how they tasted… and how they made me feel.

“Well, that’s what the consumer wants, and we’re not putting a gun to their head to eat it.”

What a fantastic excuse. Maybe we should make a list of all the things that children will do without having guns put to their heads because “that’s what they want”. Not a pretty list, which is why we have parents. But I don’t blame my mom for not being a nutritionist. Let’s leave her out of this one and put the onus where it really belongs.

You know, it’s awfully easy to beat ourselves up over our unhealthy habits. These businesses practically put these products in our hands as children, but because THEY DIDN’T PUT A GUN TO OUR HEADS, it’s OUR fault we’re still hooked on these things as adults. They engineer an addictive substance, market it to children, and then place the blame on their victims. Fantastic.

No wonder there is so much self-loathing, guilt, and disordered eating in our culture. I makes me furious that I will probably NEVER forget what a Lunchable, Pop-Tart, Kid’s Cuisine, or bag of Doritos tastes like, and that I will probably ALWAYS vividly recall those tastes every time I walk by these things in the grocery store. That’s not healthy. But it damn well isn’t 9-year-old-me’s fault. That little guy didn’t do anything wrong; he just went to school and ate his lunch. But you know, it’s still kind of hard to say that, even today.

Ran 12 miles this morning. Time to go eat, like, the whole fridge. Which is full of veggies.

But yes, you were right again. Thanks for doing what you do, Erika.

Kami August 17, 2013 - 4:25 PM

This is a great article. I gave up on processed foods for the most part. I still live at home and my mother is addicted to sugar she stays bringing home vegan treats It sucks. I consume to much myself because I always must have a treat, Now after reading this article I am giving up extra sugary treats organic or not. Now I am suffering through a plateau. The first goal was to get my mom and I off of processed crap. Then I am moving on to having no more cookies, vegan ice cream and etc.

Ashley October 7, 2013 - 6:53 AM

I read the entire thing. I grew up not allowed to eat lunchables, I’m glad my mom stuck to her guns on that by there’s other processed food habits I have to kick.. thanks for the info:)

christine October 7, 2013 - 9:28 AM

sighs..I could give up sweets for the rest of my life..but my doritos..my one true vice

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