How food companies keep us hooked

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“Lunchables became this billion-dollar product … the industry knows how to tap into our deepest biology and knows that we eat for emotional reasons as much as we do kind of for pure hunger,” says Michael Moss. Photo by Shutterstock.

Why do we crave certain foods like cheesy chips, pizza, and sodas? Nutrition labels and experts advise avoiding heavily-processed foods, not just because they are loaded with bad calories and have zero nutritional value, but because once consumed, they have us hooked.

Food companies and manufacturers invest heavily in researching the best combinations of flavors, smells, and taste will keep consumers coming back for more. Sugar impacts the brain 20 times faster than nicotine, and foods that are highly processed and sweetened are the most addictive.

“Everything about processed food is designed for speed; The packaging, the formulation, and the speed with which the products are able to deliver that hit of joy to the reward center of the brain is faster than tobacco and alcohol,” says Michael Moss. The impact on the nation’s health is significant – before the pandemic, the obesity rate was at 42% in the U.S. 

Back in 2013 Moss won the Pulitzer Prize for his book “Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us,” which exposes how big multinational food companies make massive profits by producing cheap and hard-to-resist processed food. In 2021 Moss published “Hooked: Food, Free Will, and How the Food Giants Exploit Our Addictions” which exposes how the Big Food giants keep us hooked on their products.

Jonathan Bastian talks with Moss about efforts from food manufacturers to tackle the problem and the concerns he has. 

Michael Moss and his book, "Salt, Sugar, Fat". Photo by Dan.

“Companies responding to our growing concern about the health impacts of their products are scrambling to present us with things that appear to look better, but in fact, really aren’t,” says Moss. “One of the things they're doing is replacing sugar with non-caloric sweeteners of all types. … It illustrates the extent to which processed foods, and the manipulated formulations that the company has come up with, can really mess with our heads, and our biology, and put us out of whack.”

Moss says that food companies have sabotaged our relationship with food but suggests it is possible to take back control over the foods we love.

“A lot of what we're talking about here are things that the food industry stole from us. Salt, sugar, and fat in the hands of a good cook are really great things, and not something to be worried about,” says Moss. “And so when I think about ways to turn the tables and come up with solutions, I love this idea of reclaiming and convenience, of our ability to turn the tables on the companies and retake what they took from us, and exploited to our detriment.”




Andrea Brody