From the author of Salt Sugar Fat comes a “gripping” (The Wall Street Journal) exposé of how the processed food industry exploits our evolutionary instincts, the emotions we associate with food, and legal loopholes in their pursuit of profit over public health. Everyone knows how hard it can be to maintain a healthy diet. But what if some of the decisions we make about what to eat are beyond our control? Is it possible that food is addictive, like drugs or alcohol? And to what extent does the food industry know, or care, about these vulnerabilities? In Hooked, Pulitzer Prize – winning investigative reporter Michael Moss sets out to answer these questions — and to find the true peril in our food. Moss uses the latest research...
Publisher: Random House; 1st edition (March 2, 2021) Pages: 304 pages ISBN-10: 0812997298 ISBN-13: 978-0812997293 ASIN: B08BKTKY1C
About the author: Michael Moss was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting in 2010, and was a finalist for the prize in 2006 and 1999. He is also the recipient of a Gerald Loeb Award and an Overseas Press Club citation. Before coming to The New York Times, he was a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, New York Newsday, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He has been an adjunct professor at the Columbia School of Journalism and currently lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two sons.
“I Had a Food Affair”
Jazlyn Bradley was seven years old when McDonald’s worked its way into her life. Her family moved to a redbrick townhouse in Brooklyn, New York, only a block and a half from one of the restaurant chain’s locations, making it an easy stop for a quick bite to eat. Bradley loved to get the Happy Meal, the box’s golden arches opening to reveal a fragrant burger, fries, a cookie, and a toy. Some evenings, her father came home from work with armfuls of McDonald’s, the boxes and bags multiplying as the family grew. Bradley and her siblings—she was the second of ten—would.
In the early days of her childhood, those McDonald’s nights were special occasions. The Bradleys’ dinners were mostly home-cooked, and she was the pickiest of the bunch. She did not like meat loaf. She did not like liver. She really did not like mashed potatoes, which her mother seemed incapable of imagining dinner without. With her brothers and sisters all happily eating their favorite foods, Bradley came up with a way to get what she liked, too. At dinnertime, she’d announce that she wasn’t all that hungry, which her mother would shrug off as an attempt to diet—Bradley had started to put on some weight. Ten minutes later, however, she’d be out the front door, sneaking down the block to McDonald’s.
She used her allowance on these excursions, which led her to appreciate another of fast food’s charms. The larger sizes hardly cost any more than the small. Once she did the math, she ditched the Happy Meal for the Number Two: a pair of burgers for nearly the price of one. The same logic worked for the sodas and fries; getting the giant size only made sense.
By middle school, McDonald’s had become the first meal of Bradley’s day. She’d skip breakfast and lunch, but more than make up for it when school let out. She’d work the whole menu board, adding the biggest fries, the biggest shake, and a couple of pies to the twin burgers, and she’d double it all, intending—yet sometimes failing—to give the second meal to a friend or her youngest brother. At one point, she commuted to an after-school program in the Bronx, where she’d stop at another McDonald’s before heading back into the subway; there’d be a pile of empty wrappers on her lap by the time she reached her stop.
“I had one of those deep stomachs,” she told me. “I just loved to eat. I had a food affair. As a kid, I didn’t want that milk. I wanted burgers and French fries, or hot dogs and French fries. My mom would find cake wrappers under my bed, and even now, in the middle of the night, I’ll go and look in the refrigerator.”
In describing her eating habits, Bradley was touching on themes that people everywhere were grappling with in dealing with food and the trouble it could cause. She sensed that there was something going on inside her body to deepen her appetite, but she couldn’t nail down just what that might be. She felt passionate about food, but in a tawdry kind of way: an “affair,” as she called it. And it wasn’t any old thing that stole her heart; particular foods were uncanny in the way they attracted her. She despised potatoes, yet flipped for fries. She loved ground beef—if it arrived in a bun. She got full almost immediately at her mother’s table, but had never met a bag of fast-food takeout that was big enough to satiate her. What sense did any of that make?
Moreover, when she was struck by the urge to eat—which could happen anytime during the day or the night, even if she was not really hungry, and in fact when she couldn’t be hungry, as when the craving hit her right after a meal—the certainty that she would cave in to the impulse left her embarrassed. Thus, the wrappers stashed under the bed.
Bradley’s relationship to food was compelling, too, for how it changed over time. Where, as a young girl, eating could be pure joy—“I’d do a little shake when I ate”—a darkness had set in by the time she entered high school. She noticed how often she ate when she felt troubled. She began to use food to deal with issues, like, as the second oldest child, not getting the kind of attention she needed from her parents. She had asthma so severe that walking too fast would cause her to gasp, meaning exercise was out. Her weight edged up and down, but eventually reached 250 pounds at age sixteen. On her five-foot, six-inch frame, this pushed her beyond the plus sizes in clothing.
Food was by no means the only challenge in Bradley’s life. She had dyslexia, which made school more difficult. Her family landed in a shelter for a time. Bradley had bouts of depression and loneliness, and when her family moved to a new neighborhood, she fiercely missed the friends she’d spent summers with out on the streets, eating ices and splashing in the water when the firefighters opened a hydrant. Yet she toughed it all out, or maybe those were the things that made her tough. Life hadn’t been easy for her thus far, but the day came when she got the chance to settle a score.
The Bradley family was friendly with an attorney named Samuel Hirsch, no stranger himself to the borough’s grit. Born in 1946 in an Austrian camp for people displaced by World War II, he moved with his family to Brooklyn, worked his way through law school, won a seat in the state assembly, joined a 1978 melee over the fatal stabbing of a Jewish man and got arrested for punching a cop (which he denied, and the case was dismissed), eked out a criminal practice defending members of the Mafia, and shifted gears to bring civil lawsuits on behalf of people who got hurt.
He represented Bradley and several of her siblings in a case that stemmed from the lead paint in their home. The legal claim was taking years to resolve, and Hirsch visited the family with some frequency, even bringing gifts on Christmas. In 2002, Hirsch asked Bradley, then in her senior year of high school, if she would join him in a different sort of injury case. He was suing McDonald’s for ruining people’s health—not by accident or contamination, but through the very design of its products.
This would be a much harder fight than the lead suit, with less chance of success, he knew, starting with the fact that he had no experience in this type of claim. But then again, nobody did. The closest thing up until that point had been a case brought against McDonald’s for surreptitiously cooking its fries in beef fat, which the company settled not with a big payout to the plaintiff, but by donating $10 million to Hindu and vegetarian groups. Hirsch, however, was convinced that a case against McDonald’s on health grounds was potentially stronger, could possibly be lucrative, and would be significant for everyone, given the pain and suffering being caused by the modern diet.
An analysis from the U.S. surgeon general, which Hirsch cited in his court papers, estimated that obesity alone caused three hundred thousand premature deaths each year. Hirsch quoted him as well in warning that America’s eating habits “may soon cause as much preventable disease and death as cigarette smoking,” with heart disease, type 2 diabetes, several types of cancer, and musculoskeletal disorders including osteoarthritis of the knee all linked to excessive and unhealthy eating. Even the economy was taking a hit, Hirsch noted. The annual bill for obesity had been calculated to be $117 billion in medical expenses and lost wages, part of the hidden cost passed on to consumers by the manufacturers of fast and heavily processed food.
Jazlyn Bradley had not been Hirsch’s first choice as a plaintiff for his attack on McDonald’s. He had initially filed the complaint on behalf of a 272-pound maintenance supervisor from Queens who lived on fast food. No one could argue that the man, Caesar Barber, wasn’t suffering from his weight. He’d had a pair of heart attacks already. But Barber was fifty-six years old, and when he blamed his troubles on his regimen of burgers and fries, he was an easy target for the tabloids and the food industry. “Fast Food Fatty Has Legal Beef,” read one of the headlines. Even his sympathizers pointed out that a man of his age had to take some ownership of the choices he’d made in life. During an appearance on Good Morning America, the host pressed, “Mr. Barber, you had two heart attacks, and your own doctor told you, ‘Don’t eat fast food,’ but you kept on eating it….Aren’t you responsible for this?”
“ Part of it, yes, I am responsible,” Barber replied, immediately putting himself in a hole. “But I am saying, the part that they never explained to me was what I was eating, why they had so much sodium, so much fat content, so much sugar. I didn’t know that, and it wasn’t seen when you went into the restaurant. There was no alternative, so I ate it.”
Barber had a point, to be sure. In a few years, New York City would try to help people be more aware of what they were eating by requiring restaurants to divulge the calories in their products, and McDonald’s itself began selling salads as an alternative to burgers and fries. But Barber couldn’t get past the matter of personal responsibility and the case was foundering when Hirsch got a call from John Banzhaf, a Washington lawyer and something of a giant slayer. A few years earlier, in 1997, Banzhaf had helped engineer the legal assault that brought the tobacco industry to its knees. Rather than relying on individuals to sue the cigarette manufacturers for damaging their health, the new strategy involved states bringing lawsuits against the manufacturers for wrecking the budgets of the health agencies that had to care for all the sick smokers. This was a stroke of genius that framed the issue in dollars and cents instead of individual moral judgments, and in 1998, the tobacco companies caved. They agreed to curtail their worst marketing practices and spend $246 billion on measures to counteract the medical harm they had done.
Encouraged by that success, Banzhaf and other tort-minded lawyers had been eyeing the $1.5 trillion processed food industry as their next big target when Hirsch brought his case on behalf of Barber and got hit by the media backlash. When they spoke, Banzhaf’s advice to Hirsch was blunt: Find a new client. Get someone who could not be flatly dismissed for having made bad decisions in life. Someone who was not in full control of their food choices. Someone who, frankly, was a lot younger than the middle-aged maintenance man. “ If you want to establish a new legal principle, you want to get the strongest possible case you can, and you’ll probably be much more successful if you bring one on behalf of kids,” Banzhaf told Hirsch.
“The jury is going to Then, one afternoon, Bradley had a moment of painful clarity as she watched the talk show Maury, which aired a segment on be much more sympathetic to an eight-year-old who’s obese than a fifty-six-year-old who’s obese.” That was when Hirsch thought of the girl from his lead-paint case.
Bradley’s family initially wavered when Hirsch asked her to join his cause. McDonald’s was surging past $15 billion in sales from more than 31,000 outlets in more than 100 countries. “This is a big company,” her mother warned. “They’re like part of the fast-food mafia. You really want to go after them?” Jazlyn worried, too, about the consequences on her day-to-day life. “I eat there every day,” she reminded herself. She had visions of walking into a McDonald’s after the lawsuit got filed only to have the workers and patrons alike fall silent and stare, recognizing her as the girl who wanted to take away their jobs and charms like the McFlurry. She had the sense from her own experience that many of the customers were emotionally bound to McDonald’s. That they were buying comfort as much as food, and that she’d be seen as picking on the poor, the lonely, the depressed. “They’re home looking at the TV,” she said. “They’re wanting what’s being advertised. They get up and go get that.”
Then, one afternoon, Bradley had a moment of painful clarity as she watched the talk show Maury, which aired a segment on overweight children.
Bradley suddenly realized that she wasn’t alone in this. Other kids, from other places and backgrounds, were suffering because of their relationship with food. By one count, three million new cases of childhood obesity arose each year, with the children encountering ailments that used to beset only adults: high blood pressure, osteoarthritis, the scarring of organs. Thirteen-year-old hearts looked like they belonged to fifty-year-old men. But what hit Bradley the hardest was the video clips of obese kids as they ate; that, she realized, was how she must look to others.
“There was a boy, sitting at a table stuffing his face, just stuffing his face,” she said. “And my little brother said, ‘He’s mad fat. All he does is eat burgers. Nothin’ else.’ And you know how you get a light that goes snap? ‘That’s you,’ it said to me. I’m a fat kid and all I do is eat. I didn’t just sit there and eat everything all at once. But it reminded me of myself, and I said, ‘You know, let me see if I could at least help somebody else out.’ ” Turning off the TV, she was now able to see the lawsuit like Hirsch did: not only as a big payout, but as a cause, and one that went beyond herself.
Hirsch refiled the case against McDonald’s on August 22, 2002, with Bradley and another teenager as plaintiffs. The complaint alleged that McDonald’s had been unfair and deceptive in selling products that were high in salt, sugar, fat, and cholesterol, because it had failed to tell its customers how much of these additives they were getting. At the time—and this was the norm for most of the restaurant industry—there were no packaging labels or store displays that bore this information, as there were for groceries. The lawsuit also argued that McDonald’s had failed its customers by not warning them that eating products so high in salt, sugar, fat, and cholesterol could lead to the many health problems cited by the surgeon general. It further alleged that McDonald’s had lured children to eat its products through fraudulent marketing that presented them as nutritious.
McDonald’s denied each of the allegations, said it would defend itself vigorously, and marshaled a team of lawyers to refute the claims. “We feel strongly that this lawsuit has no merit,” the company’s spokesman, Walt Riker, said. “However, the facts about our food, our values and our commitment to nutrition leadership are far more important. It is important to note that the vast majority of nutrition professionals say that McDonald’s food can be part of a healthful diet based on the sound nutrition principles of balance, variety and moderation.”
As Banzhaf anticipated, the media treated the child plaintiffs gently. The reporting focused on the enticements to eat at McDonald’s, which went beyond the food and might cloud a child’s thinking about nutrition. “ She liked the prizes,” a New York Times reporter wrote of Bradley’s co-plaintiff. Still, some in the media asked: Weren’t the kids partly responsible? Hadn’t they, like Barber, played at least some role in deciding to eat at McDonald’s? And speaking of decisions, where were the parents when the children’s weight began to climb? Bradley’s father gave a statement to the court saying he had thought McDonald’s food was healthy, which may not have sounded credible. It was 2002, a year after the publication of Eric Schlosser’s bestselling exposé Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, which brought significant mainstream attention to the ills of a diet heavy in burgers, pizza, and fries.
This time, however, Hirsch was prepared for the pushback on personal responsibility. In refiling his lawsuit, he’d included a line of attack that hadn’t been in the original claim. The idea came straight from the tobacco-case playbook. It argued that people who ate at McDonald’s, like those who smoked cigarettes, were hampered in their decision making. They didn’t have full control in evaluating the risks—in saying no to another bite or sip—because there was more to the product than met the eye.
One of the defining moments in the legal fight with the tobacco manufacturers came when smoking was deemed an addiction. This was a shift that the cigarette industry had fiercely contested and that even the public was slow to accept. Addiction was a term previously reserved for illegal drugs and for alcohol. But once the idea took hold that cigarettes could defeat the most dogged efforts to quit smoking, juries began to believe that smoking could also be addictive, and this effectively turned them against the tobacco manufacturers. Addiction meant that smokers could not be entirely blamed when they got lung cancer. The companies deserved to be held liable, too.
Hirsch was now making the same bold case for food. Overeating was not just a matter of personal choice, he argued. There were hidden and powerful influences that could cause people to lose control. People might think they were making decisions of their own volition, but, in fact, they were being coaxed, guided, and pulled by invisible forces. Hirsch’s claim on behalf of Bradley and the other children alleged that McDonald’s sold products that weren’t just high in salt, sugar, fat, and cholesterol. They were also “physically or psychologically addictive and/or addictive in nature.”
That’s all Hirsch said about addiction in the complaint. He knew this could prove to be the strongest of his assertions, but he didn’t as yet have any more to say until the discovery phase, when he could flush out some concrete facts. The media, as a result, paid almost no attention to this aspect of the lawsuit. But the federal judge who got the case was deeply intrigued, and he labored to figure out just where Hirsch intended to go with this claim.
Judge Robert Sweet was known for speaking his mind. Most notably, he had snubbed judicial reserve by openly calling for the repeal of drug laws and their harsh sentencing guidelines, including those banning crack cocaine and heroin, saying that “the war on drugs is bankrupt.” In an early ruling on Hirsch’s lawsuit, he seemed to be equally sickened by what could be viewed as the fast-food industry’s war on health. The judge poked and prodded with a string of provocative questions that went well beyond the reach of current science or law. But they reflected the scope of what many people were starting to ask in their scrutiny of fast food, as well as much of what’s sold in the grocery store. These same questions would go on to help set the agenda for investigations into the habit-forming nature of modern food—via researchers and scientists, ethicists and therapists, school lunch providers and lobbyists, farmers and entrepreneurs, and this very book.
In the case of McDonald’s, the judge asked, what was it about the restaurant chain’s products that could make them addictive? Was it some combination of the sugars and fats, or was there “some other additive, that works in the same manner as nicotine in cigarettes, to induce addiction?” How much of McDonald’s did one need to eat for the food to become addictive? Did the addiction set in immediately, or did it take time? Were kids more vulnerable than adults? And what about the company’s intent in this? The judge observed, “There is no allegation as to whether McDonald’s purposefully manufactured products to have these addictive qualities.”
Judge Sweet was probing the addiction claim with such care, in part, because the rest of Hirsch’s complaint was hopelessly weak. As a matter of law, the other counts faced extremely high hurdles. It was no secret that fast food was unhealthy, the judge pointed out. In fact, it would be hard to make the case that any of McDonald’s customers couldn’t have known that eating too much of this food would be bad for them, the judge wrote. Or, in the case of kids, that they wouldn’t have stood at the counter with a parent who knew or should have known about the danger. How could one fault the company for not giving people information that they reasonably should already possess?
The addiction claim, on the other hand, was compelling for the chance that it offered to slip past that reality. Selling products that were addictive put a wholly different spin on the matter of informed consent. If that could be proved, Hirsch’s clients would have much better odds in arguing they’d been caught by a force that they couldn’t anticipate. Unlike the high loads of sugar and fat in fast food, the judge wrote, food that was addictive “does not involve a danger that is so open and obvious, or so commonly well-known, that McDonald’s customers would be expected to know about it.”
Sam Hirsch’s case on behalf of Jazlyn Bradley would take years and several more judicial decisions to resolve, and ultimately there would be no big payout for anyone involved. Nor would Hirsch uncover any big revelations about a secret, compelling force in McDonald’s food. The company staunchly denied all of his allegations and then handily defended itself. But the adjudication hardly mattered in the end. The public wasn’t waiting for the court to go through its paces. From the moment the case was filed, Bradley’s audacious bid to hold McDonald’s accountable for her troubled eating set in motion events that would greatly affect how we think about cravings, appetite, and the processed food industry’s power to throw our eating habits into such disorder.
The public conversation spurred by Bradley’s case galvanized those who sought to prove the biological basis for food addiction through research, including laboratory experiments, that explored how our body and mind responded to food. It also sent the fast-food restaurants and manufacturers scrambling to shield their products from attack, even as they simultaneously maneuvered to position themselves to capitalize on our growing nutritional anxieties. Young Jazlyn’s circumstance was certainly not everyone’s. She was on the further end of the spectrum that delimits disordered eating, with a diet exceptionally high in junk food and a severe struggle with weight. There are also socioeconomic forces at play; it’s no secret that fast-food companies and the makers of processed food have had a disproportionate effect on the eating habits of poor communities of color, though the health consequences of bad diets have struck the wealthy, too. Most of us are finding ourselves unsettled by food in one way or another; we’re feeling not quite in control of our eating, or we’re taxed by the effort it takes to exert that control; we’re anxious that our appetites are doing us more harm than good, or we sense a disconnect between what we think we want and what our bodies need; we’re feeling the loss of the beauty, resonance, and rituals of food as it was, before we fell so hard for the convenience and other allures of the highly processed.
In his initial decision, Judge Sweet took pains to note that something was obviously changing in American consumption, given the dramatic turn that our eating habits had taken over the course of the twentieth century. Despite being widely attacked for making products that had obvious flaws when it came to health and wholesomeness, fast-food restaurants and processed food manufacturers seemed to march forward unscathed, their profits climbing higher year after year, the judge pointed out. Its companies were expanding, going global, and changing the very nature of grocery stores by introducing packaged goods that embraced the worst traits of fast food. From farmers in Nebraska who filled in creeks to grow more corn for syrup, cereal, and cattle feed; to the eating culture in France, where the number of cafés had dwindled from 200,000 after World War II to just 40,000; and to the waistlines in China, where the norm of having too little to eat had shifted to eating too much, no part of the world’s food economy was left untouched by the promotion of products that were cheap and easy.
And yet, even those hallmarks of processed food—the lowest prices and the greatest convenience—didn’t seem like enough to explain the industry’s success to many people. The transformation of our eating habits had been so vast, so swift, and so inexplicably self-destructive, that there had to be more. Something else, and something pretty extraordinary, had to be behind all that.
I came to the question of food and addiction inadvertently with the 2013 publication of my book Salt Sugar Fat. In it, I argued that grocery manufacturers were competing with fast-food chains in a race to the bottom that rewarded profits over health. Over the past four decades, salt, sugar, and fat had enabled the industries to engineer products that were immensely alluring. Brilliant marketing campaigns pushed the emotional buttons that convinced us to eat when we weren’t even hungry. Yet the book tried to end on a hopeful note. Knowing all that the companies did to prop up their unwholesome products, I argued, was oddly empowering. We could use that insight to make better choices because, ultimately, we were the ones deciding what to buy and how much to eat.
Then came the media interviews. My optimism was challenged when reporters asked, “But aren’t these products addictive, like drugs?” I hemmed and hawed, not knowing the answer, though aware that the implications could be huge. If food was addictive like cocaine and heroin, or even like cigarettes and gin, that would certainly inhibit our ability to decide what to buy and how much to eat. No matter how much we knew about the food company’s machinations, their products would still have the edge. In the worst circumstances, we wouldn’t be deciding anything at all. The companies would own our choices, and our free will. Which, as the McDonald’s case suggested, might explain why we have careened so sharply toward their products.
Thus, the initial imperative for this book: to sort out and size up the true peril in food. To see if addiction is the best way to think about our trouble with food and eating, given what we’ve learned from other substances and habits. And to peer inside the processed food industry to see how it is dealing with what, in its view, would be a monumental threat to the power it holds over us.
My questioners, it turns out, were underplaying their hand. Not only is food addictive. The first part of this book, “Inside Addiction,” examines a wealth of surprising evidence that food, in some ways, can be even more addictive than alcohol, cigarettes, and drugs.
This is partly a matter of language. For centuries, the word addiction has been used to describe our behavior in consuming all manner of things. At times, it has been saddled with criteria that would rule out even some of the most potent drugs; cocaine didn’t meet the strictest standard because, unlike heroin, it doesn’t leave you writhing in pain when you stop using it. Today, however, the purest definition—and the one we’ll use in this book—comes from an unimpeachable source. As a leader in producing both cigarettes and mega brands of processed food, the manufacturing giant Philip Morris was, one could argue, intimate with addiction. In 2000, its CEO was pressed to define the word, and while the context was smoking, the gem he came up with could apply to the company’s groceries just as well: “a repetitive behavior that some people find difficult to quit.”
The word some in that definition is key. For a substance to be considered addictive, we don’t all have to fall hard for it. There are casual users of heroin, and there are people who can stop at a handful of potato chips. Addiction is a spectrum, with the rest of us landing somewhere between being mildly affected and fully ensnared.
This insight comes from another group of uniquely qualified experts who, before turning their attention to food, had examined drugs and alcohol to help establish their habit-forming nature, and for me, this was the most unsettling aspect of food addiction. I’d focused much of my recent work on holding the processed food companies accountable for getting us so dependent on their products. Yet now it was clear from these researchers that much of the explanation for why food is addictive lies entirely within us. We are, quite plainly, built that way.
For starters, we don’t need the harsh compounds found in drugs to get hooked on things. Our brain has its own slurry of chemicals that are exquisitely formulated to get us to act compulsively, dopamine chief among them. Indeed, they’re so good at directing our behavior that drugs are designed to mimic these native substances in our heads. It’s true that, as measured by the stir in our neurology, not even Doritos Jacked can muster the depth of the cravings raised by, say, cocaine. But one hallmark of addiction is the speed with which substances hit the brain, and this puts the term fast food in a new light. Measured in milliseconds, and the power to addict, nothing is faster than processed food in rousing the brain.
Addiction is also deeply enmeshed with memory, and the memories we create for food are typically stronger and longer lasting than any other substance. Childhood memories of food can wield an uncanny power over our eating habits for the rest of our lives, and the reverse is true, too. When a celebrated chef and food writer began losing her memory through Alzheimer’s, it had devastating effects on her senses and passion for food. In this regard, memory is just as potent as food itself in forming the habits that can lead to addiction.
Indeed, our entire body—from the nose to the gut to our body fat—is designed to get us not just to like food but to want more and more of it, which we’re learning now from the fossilized bones of our prehistoric forebears. We have evolved in astonishing ways to seek out not just those foods that are sweet and loaded with calories but also those that are convenient and varied and cost less to produce. We’re hooked on cheap food, a processed food industry official said to me once, but I hadn’t yet realized how much of this aspect of addiction flowed from our own biology, where cheapness translates into saving the energy we need to survive.
And yet, for all of the insight into our evolutionary biology, the dietary trouble we find ourselves in today can only in part be put on us. None of the biology that binds us to food, not even the drive to overeat, used to matter. Indeed, for the first four million years of our existence, it was our addiction to food that enabled us to thrive as a species. It’s only now, for the past forty years, that being hooked on food is causing us so much harm. What happened? The food is what happened. Or, as one of the evolutionary biologists who are probing this aspect of our eating habits put it, “It’s not so much that food is addictive, but rather that we by nature are drawn to eating, and the companies changed the food.”
And oh, how they changed the food.
In their rise to power, the processed food companies have wielded salt, sugar, and fat not just in pursuing profits through the cheapest means of production. Theirs has been a concerted effort to reach the primeval zones of our brain where we act by instinct rather than rationalization.
Intuitively, we like sweet, and so they’ve given us sweet. The food manufacturers have more than sixty types of sugar that they’ve added to things that didn’t used to be sweet, thereby creating in us the expectation that everything should be cloying. We like convenience, and so they’ve given us the convenience of not needing to cook. Three-fourths of the calories we get from groceries now come from processed foods that are ready to eat or ready to heat. And since we’ve evolved to like variety, they’ve given us the illusion of endless choice, knowing their sales would surge. In the treasure trove of industry documents that I’ve tapped for this book is a 1980s research project that uses the language of addiction in describing the shoppers most apt to lose control: “The variety seekers have consistently been heavy users.”
So much has happened to our food, and so quickly by evolutionary terms, that some scientists are now framing our disordered eating as a vast and terrible mismatch with our biology—because our brain and body, in their ability to size up and metabolize the calories in what we eat and drink, just haven’t had time to adjust to the change in our diet.
Yet the processed food industry hasn’t stopped there. In the past few years, we’ve become increasingly alarmed about our dependency on its products. But as the second part of this book, “Outside Addiction,” shows, the industry has moved to deny, delay, and, most recently, turn this concern to its advantage.
Within weeks of Jazlyn Bradley’s case being filed, industry lobbyists worked to create new statutes that would bar anyone else from bringing a lawsuit like hers, intent on thwarting the attorneys who beat tobacco. In this same vein, food manufacturers have scrambled to control the science that might shed crucial light on the addictiveness of their products, going so far as to halt the research of one celebrated scientist when her results turned damning. “She is dangerous,” one PepsiCo official said as they shut down the investigation.
At the same time, the industry has sought to deflect our struggle to regain control of our eating. In a little-noticed move on their part, the largest manufacturers of processed food took ownership of the dieting trade, turning the most popular programs into conduits for their products. Junk food morphed into junk diets, and in an even bolder move, the processed food industry has filled the grocery store with diet foods that are hardly distinguishable from the regular products that got us into trouble in the first place.
Now, with more and more people unable to make dieting work for them, and more and more of us wanting to better our eating habits, these manufacturers are competing to take ownership of these trends, too. They’re adding ingredients that, billed as the cure to compulsive eating, are no more than placebos. They’re digging into our DNA in hopes of unlocking a gene that can keep our cravings at bay. They’re also trying to win back our faith in processed food by tweaking the neurology of our taste buds to make it okay to crave their products as much as we do.
The global food manufacturer Nestlé has been a trailblazer in this turn toward “better” processed food. I was in the room when the company’s sixty top product developers recently met to hash out ways to lessen the mismatch between some of its biggest sellers and the biology of our addiction, and they seemed astonishingly earnest. “I have a list of products I don’t want to see on the shelf anymore,” the company’s newly appointed chief technology officer, Stefan Catsicas, told the group. “We need to reverse engineer this problem.”
In the end, that is what this book is about. Only here, the aim is to lay out all that the companies have done to exploit our addiction to food so that we might reverse engineer our dependence. Clearly, this is a bigger challenge than I previously thought—given how we, through our nature, can be unwitting conspirators with all that the industry does to control our decisions on what to eat, and how much.
There may be pitfalls in framing our trouble with food in terms of addiction, given the industry’s ability to maneuver around such criticisms, but there might also be one huge benefit. Some of the most promising strategies to help us regain control of our food and eating can be found in the tactics used to fight other addictions, from smoking to drug abuse to smartphones. And in this regard, addiction to food might be more than a shared burden; it could be part of the path forward to a healthier future.