For this week’s podcast episode I sat down with Michael Moss, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Salt Sugar Fat and now, Hooked: Food, Free Will, and How the Food Giants Exploit Our Addictions. Hooked is an incredible book: a deep dive into the processed food industry and a look at how highly-processed food can be even more addictive than hard drugs.
My main takeaway from the book is how we shouldn’t see processed food as food: it’s more of a Frankenstein-esque lab creation. Michael illustrates this with the example of pumpkin spice—one of the coziest-feeling flavors I can think of:
“In our kitchen cabinets, pumpkin spice is made of cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and maybe ginger. Not so in processed food. Its pumpkin spice is simulated through the deployment of as many as eighty elements.”
Companies have learned to isolate flavor compounds and add them to our food—without our knowledge or permission—to make what we eat taste like something it’s not. Our latte may taste like pumpkin, but in reality, it’s a cocktail of other ingredients concocted in chemical laboratories.
Flavor is the main lever processed food companies use to hook us on their products. According to Michael, the others are:
- Calories. We have a natural drive to maximize our calorie intake. If two foods taste identical, but one has more calories, that’s the one we’ll choose.
- Cost. The cheaper something is, the more likely we are to buy it.
- Variety. We crave variety—and the novelty that comes along with it. That’s why there are so many flavors of Oreos and sparkling water!
- Convenience. We gravitate towards what saves us time—hence the appeal of ready-to-heat or ready-to-eat meals.
In our conversation, linked below, Michael and I dig deeper into the levers processed food companies use to get us to eat more of what they sell.
He’s a fascinating interview—and I highly recommend the book as well.