NY Times Article Review: The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food

By: Thomas Siebertz


Why is it so hard to put down that bag of salty, crunchy chips? When we eat certain foods, chemicals such as serotonin and dopamine are released in the brain, which makes us “feel good.”  As food science students, we know what goes into creating and marketing new products, but how is the industry using food science and what are the ethics behind it?  In the NY Times Article “The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food,”  Michael Moss tells us his side of the story.

He describes studies and focus groups aimed at creating products that are cheap and lack good nutrition. It is in a company’s best interest to sell more products, but at what cost? We have seen an epidemic of public health issues linked with the consumption of food high in sugar, salt and fat, such as diabetes and heart disease.

Although food is only half of the obesity epidemic equation, it’s an issue that needs to be addressed on a larger scale. Junk foods will likely always have market share, but many companies have begun to adapt to the changing needs of the consumer and offer products that are healthier but still convenient. Companies are now listening to the consumer more than ever and we should be encouraged to demand products that are healthy and as affordable as possible.

The article goes into much greater detail on the topic, and while the author neglects to recognize the positive contributions of food science, I invite everyone to read it. It applies to all of us because we are all consumers, and it gets us thinking about the products we eat and why. For those of us who are food science students and are going to be the new generation of food scientists, I think it conveys an important message about the ethics of what we do.


To read the article, click here


What are your thoughts on the matter? Do you think it’s unethical to create less healthy foods that are cheap or are consumers using that as an excuse to not eat better?


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Photo credit: thenutritionpost.com


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  1. Michael Moss made an interesting statement on Morning Joe last Friday. He talked about how the industry tries to do the right thing with sodium reduction, etc., but it is punished by Wall Street.


    Also, this was a major topic at last week’s IFT Wellness 13 conference in Chicago. Everyone should try to make it next year!

  2. I thought the title was horribly misleading. I didn’t think that what we do was that extraordinary but maybe to the uninitiated it is. The article started out in a way that I thought was unflattering to the industry, then it transitioned into telling us things that most of us already know. It never mentioned that when companies try and make healthier products for consumers, they don’t sell and have to switch back to the original in order to make any money.

  3. I have been letting my thoughts about the NY Times article percolate for a few days, and I ‘m still not really sure what to think. Maybe I’ll need to read it again and take notes. Thanks for sharing Thomas!

  4. Thanks Emily. There’s a lot of info there. I think a lot of food scientists working for these big companies are just doing their jobs. Plus no one is forcing people to buy these products. I liked the discussion about lunchables, took me back lol.

  5. As a consumer of food I’ve got to say I was pretty disgusted with the attitudes of the food manufacturers. Making statements like “if they didn’t want it like that they wouldn’t buy it” (I’m paraphrasing) comes across as saying “well of course we know it’s not good for you but that’s what you’re asking for.” I say baloney… I’m not a health-food-nut, I like some chips, I do drink pop some times, but it seems there’s been a huge downward spiral in the quality of food over the past years.

    If there was a big poster next to the Lunchables that said, “Yes, you can give your child THIRTEEN teaspoons of sugar, almost 100% of the unsaturated fats and most of the sodium they need!” do you really think people would say, “YES! That’s what I want!” No. Thomas, you say “no one is forcing people to buy these products”. Really? Then why is so much time and money spend on perfecting the marketing plans, the “sweet spot” for taste or crunch, the psychology behind why people like A better than B? Of course the food industry is forcing people to buy junk food, but it’s done in such a way people don’t realize it.

    A drug dealer could say, “Well, nobody is FORCING addicts to take drugs!” A liquor store owner could say the same thing. Sure, nobody is tying people up and shooting them up, pouring booze or unhealthy food down their throats, but they’re sure making it easy and making people think it’s not really THAT bad….

    When I compare two similar cans of soup, and one is loaded with stuff I can hardly spell or pronounce, that includes a ton of sodium, that includes MSG, that includes fake colouring and an overall ingredients list that is much, much longer than the other can, guess which one I’m going for? The healthier one. And the less “fake” can of soup still tastes good (as far as canned soups go).

    When I look at a bakery item that has a mile-long list including artificial colouring, I ask “Why?!?!!?” when I know the ingredients list if I made it would be a fraction of the length.

    People don’t want fake and unneccessary stuff in their food, and unfortunately, for lower income families it’s often cheaper to buy the unhealthy stuff than it is the healthy food, so your “there’s demand!” model is flawed.

    If you did a taste test and asked people to taste several different kinds of potato chip, including some that you told them were not deep fried, did not have artificial flavours and colours, did not have MSG at the top of the ingredients list, I think your results would be very different.

    Marketing directly to children puts the food industry (in my opinion) into one of the sleaziest groups. Breakfast cereals with marshmallows or chocolate? Can anyone honestly say that’s a good thing and truely believe it? Yet it’s marketed as cool and fun and a great way to start your morning kiddies! And then the parents become the “bad guys” when they steer the kids towards something that will actually be good (or at least less bad) for them. The list goes on and on when it comes to issue of marketing food to kids…

    North America seems to be the worst place in the world (for non-third world counties) when it comes to the amount of unneccessary junk in food. Companies like MacDonalds use fresh strawberries with no fake colour or flavour in their sundaes all over the world, except for North America. Again, the list goes on and on….

    You have the opportunity to make a huge change in the health of millions of people. You will be the new hires coming into these companies that clearly only care about the health of the companies, not their customers. If enough of the new hires are questioning the health of the products and the unneccessary ingredients, maybe you can bring about change and save millions of lives, improve the health of millions of people including your future families.

    • Steve,
      You appear to be a European. May I ask what profession you are in? I always enjoy having someone with a different view point.

      Most of us involved in food aren’t scared of ingredients lists because we understand what they are and what they aren’t. That can of soup may have lots of salt and I agree that is unfortunate. Several US brands have made dramatic cuts in their sodium usage only to see sales go down because the customer doesn’t like the new product. What do you do in that case?

      To vilify ingredients because you don’t know what they are is wrong. MSG (monosodium glutomate) is delicious and naturally found in tons of food. It gets a bad wrap because there is powerful word of mouth against it, but no science to back it up. It is possible that a very small subset of the population is sensitive to it, but random control studies have failed to demonstrate this. Meaning that it’s a very, very small group.

      In regards to color, Europeans and Americans look at them differently. This is an area in which I know a great deal. You are right that many artificially colored products in the US are colored naturally in other countries. Artificial colors are much cheaper and have a vastly superior shelf life. That doesn’t mean the artificial colors are bad. The most conclusive study on the health effects of artificial colors is questionable at best. The same can be said for the ‘dangerous’ effects of many ‘unnatural’ ingredients that are in our foods.

      I’m not going to lie and say our food industry is perfect, but we try and produce safe, flavorful food that the majority of people can afford and will want to buy again. If you consider producing a product that is so good that people want to buy it over and over again, then I’m sorry. I consider that a success.

    • Hi Steve,
      My name is Joni, and I am writing a feature story on processed foods for a journalism class at the University of Sydney. I was wondering if you would be willing to allow me to use some of your comments in my story, as I believe they are shared by a lot of people, and deserve a platform to be heard. If you don’t mind, would you please email me to let me know? Thank you!

  6. Hi Steve, companies spend a lot of time and money perfecting their products because they want to deliver something enjoyable to the consumer. The competition is fierce in retail and of course they want repeat customers or they wouldn’t be in business very long. To say people are being forced to buy something is just not true. We are free to make our own decisions about what we eat and especially about what our children eat. These companies can market to children all they want, but in the end, the parent is the one making the ultimate purchase. As a father, I am going to do what’s best for my children, which includes telling them “no”. I would rather have my children hate me than to see them sick and obese.

    As someone who has struggled with weight issues my entire life, I can tell you it’s very difficult to avoid junk food. As a child my parents fed me fast food because it was quick but not necessarily cheap. Through my food science education I have learned a lot about nutrition and I would rather live a healthy lifestyle. I also do the weekly shopping for my family of 4. I can tell you for certain that raw fruits and vegetables are drastically cheaper than processed foods. To say other wise would be false. A large bag of chips costs almost $4.00. A pack of cookies is between 2 and 3 dollars. You may even think soda is cheap but you’re paying for sugar and water. I can buy 5 lbs of potatoes for $3.00, 3 lbs of bananas for $1.50, avocados at 99 cents each, carrots for $.69 a pound, apples for $.99 a pound, broccoli for $1.59 per lb, 16 oz. of mixed frozen veggies for a dollar each and the list goes on. I can buy a 2 lb pack of chicken breast for about $4.00. When you buy a packaged product you are paying an exponential amount more due to labor costs of production, R&D, marketing, packaging, brand name, retailers cut and so on. It is a myth that junk food is cheaper than healthy food and all you get for your money is excessive calories and very little nutrition.

    An addiction is an addiction and everyone is affected differently but to equate food with drugs and alcohol is a very far stretch. Drugs and alcohol have extremely powerful effects on the central nervous system and cause devastating health complications. They also drive people to criminal activity, cause them hurt people they love and destroy lives of the users. I’ve never heard of someone robbing a supermarket for a bag of cheetos or getting lung cancer from twinkies. Are there health consequences for eating poorly? There sure are, but they are all preventable by making better choices. We, as consumers must take responsibility for what we put into our bodies.

    In this country there is a lot of junk food because it’s a free market. Companies can sell what they choose. To say the consumer is not educated about health and nutrition is also another excuse. There is health information available everywhere on the web and on mainstream TV. Changes in the industry are reflecting that. We saw Hostess go out of business because people are choosing to eat better. We saw Subway surpass McDonald’s as the #1 food chain in the world. Fast food used to be burgers, fried chicken and soda. Now I can get a salad, fruit and even oatmeal at any number of fast food restaurants. Why? Because industry is reflecting consumer preference and it’s a great thing. As you can see, it is not up to us, the food scientists, or the industry to “make a huge change in the health of millions of people”. It is up to the consumer to demand better choices. I for one am going to continue eating better, demanding high value nutritional products, and most of all instill upon my children to eat healthy so someday diabetes, heart disease and obesity will be a thing of the past. I invite you to check out the IFT page detailing positive advancements as a result of food science: http://www.ift.org/Public-Policy-and-Regulations/Advocacy/Be-an-Advocate/Positive-Contributions-of-Food-Science.aspx

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