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The Dark Science of Addictive Junk Food

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      ...................

      Thanks to Shawna Wyatt.

      ...................

      THE EXTRAORDINARY SCIENCE OF ADDICTIVE JUNK FOOD
      By Michael Moss
      New York Times
      February 20, 2013

      http://nhne-pulse.org/the-dark-science-of-addictive-junk-food/

      http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/24/magazine/the-extraordinary-science-of-junk-food.html

      On the evening of April 8, 1999, a long line of Town Cars and taxis
      pulled up to the Minneapolis headquarters of Pillsbury and discharged 11
      men who controlled America’s largest food companies. Nestlé was in
      attendance, as were Kraft and Nabisco, General Mills and Procter &
      Gamble, Coca-Cola and Mars. Rivals any other day, the C.E.O.’s and
      company presidents had come together for a rare, private meeting. On the
      agenda was one item: the emerging obesity epidemic and how to deal with
      it. While the atmosphere was cordial, the men assembled were hardly
      friends. Their stature was defined by their skill in fighting one
      another for what they called “stomach share” -- the amount of digestive
      space that any one company’s brand can grab from the competition.

      James Behnke, a 55-year-old executive at Pillsbury, greeted the men as
      they arrived. He was anxious but also hopeful about the plan that he and
      a few other food-company executives had devised to engage the C.E.O.’s
      on America’s growing weight problem. “We were very concerned, and
      rightfully so, that obesity was becoming a major issue,” Behnke
      recalled. “People were starting to talk about sugar taxes, and there was
      a lot of pressure on food companies.” Getting the company chiefs in the
      same room to talk about anything, much less a sensitive issue like this,
      was a tricky business, so Behnke and his fellow organizers had scripted
      the meeting carefully, honing the message to its barest essentials.
      “C.E.O.’s in the food industry are typically not technical guys, and
      they’re uncomfortable going to meetings where technical people talk in
      technical terms about technical things,” Behnke said. “They don’t want
      to be embarrassed. They don’t want to make commitments. They want to
      maintain their aloofness and autonomy.”

      A chemist by training with a doctoral degree in food science, Behnke
      became Pillsbury’s chief technical officer in 1979 and was instrumental
      in creating a long line of hit products, including microwaveable
      popcorn. He deeply admired Pillsbury but in recent years had grown
      troubled by pictures of obese children suffering from diabetes and the
      earliest signs of hypertension and heart disease. In the months leading
      up to the C.E.O. meeting, he was engaged in conversation with a group of
      food-science experts who were painting an increasingly grim picture of
      the public’s ability to cope with the industry’s formulations -- from
      the body’s fragile controls on overeating to the hidden power of some
      processed foods to make people feel hungrier still. It was time, he and
      a handful of others felt, to warn the C.E.O.’s that their companies may
      have gone too far in creating and marketing products that posed the
      greatest health concerns.

      The discussion took place in Pillsbury’s auditorium. The first speaker
      was a vice president of Kraft named Michael Mudd. “I very much
      appreciate this opportunity to talk to you about childhood obesity and
      the growing challenge it presents for us all,” Mudd began. “Let me say
      right at the start, this is not an easy subject. There are no easy
      answers -- for what the public health community must do to bring this
      problem under control or for what the industry should do as others seek
      to hold it accountable for what has happened. But this much is clear:
      For those of us who’ve looked hard at this issue, whether they’re public
      health professionals or staff specialists in your own companies, we feel
      sure that the one thing we shouldn’t do is nothing.”

      As he spoke, Mudd clicked through a deck of slides -- 114 in all --
      projected on a large screen behind him. The figures were staggering.
      More than half of American adults were now considered overweight, with
      nearly one-quarter of the adult population -- 40 million people --
      clinically defined as obese. Among children, the rates had more than
      doubled since 1980, and the number of kids considered obese had shot
      past 12 million. (This was still only 1999; the nation’s obesity rates
      would climb much higher.) Food manufacturers were now being blamed for
      the problem from all sides -- academia, the Centers for Disease Control
      and Prevention, the American Heart Association and the American Cancer
      Society. The secretary of agriculture, over whom the industry had long
      held sway, had recently called obesity a “national epidemic.”

      Mudd then did the unthinkable. He drew a connection to the last thing in
      the world the C.E.O.’s wanted linked to their products: cigarettes.
      First came a quote from a Yale University professor of psychology and
      public health, Kelly Brownell, who was an especially vocal proponent of
      the view that the processed-food industry should be seen as a public
      health menace: “As a culture, we’ve become upset by the tobacco
      companies advertising to children, but we sit idly by while the food
      companies do the very same thing. And we could make a claim that the
      toll taken on the public health by a poor diet rivals that taken by
      tobacco.”

      “If anyone in the food industry ever doubted there was a slippery slope
      out there,” Mudd said, “I imagine they are beginning to experience a
      distinct sliding sensation right about now.”

      Mudd then presented the plan he and others had devised to address the
      obesity problem. Merely getting the executives to acknowledge some
      culpability was an important first step, he knew, so his plan would
      start off with a small but crucial move: the industry should use the
      expertise of scientists -- its own and others -- to gain a deeper
      understanding of what was driving Americans to overeat. Once this was
      achieved, the effort could unfold on several fronts. To be sure, there
      would be no getting around the role that packaged foods and drinks play
      in overconsumption. They would have to pull back on their use of salt,
      sugar and fat, perhaps by imposing industrywide limits. But it wasn’t
      just a matter of these three ingredients; the schemes they used to
      advertise and market their products were critical, too. Mudd proposed
      creating a “code to guide the nutritional aspects of food marketing,
      especially to children.”

      “We are saying that the industry should make a sincere effort to be part
      of the solution,” Mudd concluded. “And that by doing so, we can help to
      defuse the criticism that’s building against us.”

      What happened next was not written down. But according to three
      participants, when Mudd stopped talking, the one C.E.O. whose recent
      exploits in the grocery store had awed the rest of the industry stood up
      to speak. His name was Stephen Sanger, and he was also the person -- as
      head of General Mills -- who had the most to lose when it came to
      dealing with obesity. Under his leadership, General Mills had overtaken
      not just the cereal aisle but other sections of the grocery store. The
      company’s Yoplait brand had transformed traditional unsweetened
      breakfast yogurt into a veritable dessert. It now had twice as much
      sugar per serving as General Mills’ marshmallow cereal Lucky Charms. And
      yet, because of yogurt’s well-tended image as a wholesome snack, sales
      of Yoplait were soaring, with annual revenue topping $500 million.
      Emboldened by the success, the company’s development wing pushed even
      harder, inventing a Yoplait variation that came in a squeezable tube --
      perfect for kids. They called it Go-Gurt and rolled it out nationally in
      the weeks before the C.E.O. meeting. (By year’s end, it would hit $100
      million in sales.)

      According to the sources I spoke with, Sanger began by reminding the
      group that consumers were “fickle.” (Sanger declined to be interviewed.)
      Sometimes they worried about sugar, other times fat. General Mills, he
      said, acted responsibly to both the public and shareholders by offering
      products to satisfy dieters and other concerned shoppers, from low sugar
      to added whole grains. But most often, he said, people bought what they
      liked, and they liked what tasted good. “Don’t talk to me about
      nutrition,” he reportedly said, taking on the voice of the typical
      consumer. “Talk to me about taste, and if this stuff tastes better,
      don’t run around trying to sell stuff that doesn’t taste good.”

      To react to the critics, Sanger said, would jeopardize the sanctity of
      the recipes that had made his products so successful. General Mills
      would not pull back. He would push his people onward, and he urged his
      peers to do the same. Sanger’s response effectively ended the meeting.

      “What can I say?” James Behnke told me years later. “It didn’t work.
      These guys weren’t as receptive as we thought they would be.” Behnke
      chose his words deliberately. He wanted to be fair. “Sanger was trying
      to say, ‘Look, we’re not going to screw around with the company jewels
      here and change the formulations because a bunch of guys in white coats
      are worried about obesity.’ ”

      The meeting was remarkable, first, for the insider admissions of guilt.
      But I was also struck by how prescient the organizers of the sit-down
      had been. Today, one in three adults is considered clinically obese,
      along with one in five kids, and 24 million Americans are afflicted by
      type 2 diabetes, often caused by poor diet, with another 79 million
      people having pre-diabetes. Even gout, a painful form of arthritis once
      known as “the rich man’s disease” for its associations with gluttony,
      now afflicts eight million Americans.

      The public and the food companies have known for decades now -- or at
      the very least since this meeting -- that sugary, salty, fatty foods are
      not good for us in the quantities that we consume them. So why are the
      diabetes and obesity and hypertension numbers still spiraling out of
      control? It’s not just a matter of poor willpower on the part of the
      consumer and a give-the-people-what-they-want attitude on the part of
      the food manufacturers. What I found, over four years of research and
      reporting, was a conscious effort -- taking place in labs and marketing
      meetings and grocery-store aisles -- to get people hooked on foods that
      are convenient and inexpensive. I talked to more than 300 people in or
      formerly employed by the processed-food industry, from scientists to
      marketers to C.E.O.’s. Some were willing whistle-blowers, while others
      spoke reluctantly when presented with some of the thousands of pages of
      secret memos that I obtained from inside the food industry’s operations.
      What follows is a series of small case studies of a handful of
      characters whose work then, and perspective now, sheds light on how the
      foods are created and sold to people who, while not powerless, are
      extremely vulnerable to the intensity of these companies’ industrial
      formulations and selling campaigns.

      I. ‘In This Field, I’m a Game Changer.’

      John Lennon couldn’t find it in England, so he had cases of it shipped
      from New York to fuel the “Imagine” sessions. The Beach Boys, ZZ Top and
      Cher all stipulated in their contract riders that it be put in their
      dressing rooms when they toured. Hillary Clinton asked for it when she
      traveled as first lady, and ever after her hotel suites were dutifully
      stocked.

      What they all wanted was Dr Pepper, which until 2001 occupied a
      comfortable third-place spot in the soda aisle behind Coca-Cola and
      Pepsi. But then a flood of spinoffs from the two soda giants showed up
      on the shelves -- lemons and limes, vanillas and coffees, raspberries
      and oranges, whites and blues and clears -- what in food-industry lingo
      are known as “line extensions,” and Dr Pepper started to lose its market
      share.

      Responding to this pressure, Cadbury Schweppes created its first
      spin­off, other than a diet version, in the soda’s 115-year history, a
      bright red soda with a very un-Dr Pepper name: Red Fusion. “If we are to
      re-establish Dr Pepper back to its historic growth rates, we have to add
      more excitement,” the company’s president, Jack Kilduff, said. One
      particularly promising market, Kilduff pointed out, was the “rapidly
      growing Hispanic and African-American communities.”

      But consumers hated Red Fusion. “Dr Pepper is my all-time favorite
      drink, so I was curious about the Red Fusion,” a California mother of
      three wrote on a blog to warn other Peppers away. “It’s disgusting.
      Gagging. Never again.”

      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.”

      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).”

      I first met Moskowitz on a crisp day in the spring of 2010 at the
      Harvard Club in Midtown Manhattan. As we talked, he made clear that
      while he has worked on numerous projects aimed at creating more
      healthful foods and insists the industry could be doing far more to curb
      obesity, he had no qualms about his own pioneering work on discovering
      what industry insiders now regularly refer to as “the bliss point” or
      any of the other systems that helped food companies create the greatest
      amount of crave. “There’s no moral issue for me,” he said. “I did the
      best science I could. I was struggling to survive and didn’t have the
      luxury of being a moral creature. As a researcher, I was ahead of my time.”

      Moskowitz’s path to mastering the bliss point began in earnest not at
      Harvard but a few months after graduation, 16 miles from Cambridge, in
      the town of Natick, where the U.S. Army hired him to work in its
      research labs. The military has long been in a peculiar bind when it
      comes to food: how to get soldiers to eat more rations when they are in
      the field. They know that over time, soldiers would gradually find their
      meals-ready-to-eat so boring that they would toss them away, half-eaten,
      and not get all the calories they needed. But what was causing this
      M.R.E.-fatigue was a mystery. “So I started asking soldiers how
      frequently they would like to eat this or that, trying to figure out
      which products they would find boring,” Moskowitz said. The answers he
      got were inconsistent. “They liked flavorful foods like turkey
      tetrazzini, but only at first; they quickly grew tired of them. On the
      other hand, mundane foods like white bread would never get them too
      excited, but they could eat lots and lots of it without feeling they’d
      had enough.”

      This contradiction is known as “sensory-specific satiety.” In lay terms,
      it is the tendency for big, distinct flavors to overwhelm the brain,
      which responds by depressing your desire to have more. Sensory-specific
      satiety also became a guiding principle for the processed-food industry.
      The biggest hits -- be they Coca-Cola or Doritos -- owe their success to
      complex formulas that pique the taste buds enough to be alluring but
      don’t have a distinct, overriding single flavor that tells the brain to
      stop eating.

      Thirty-two years after he began experimenting with the bliss point,
      Moskowitz got the call from Cadbury Schweppes asking him to create a
      good line extension for Dr Pepper. I spent an afternoon in his White
      Plains offices as he and his vice president for research, Michele
      Reisner, walked me through the Dr Pepper campaign. Cadbury wanted its
      new flavor to have cherry and vanilla on top of the basic Dr Pepper
      taste. Thus, there were three main components to play with. A sweet
      cherry flavoring, a sweet vanilla flavoring and a sweet syrup known as
      “Dr Pepper flavoring.”

      Finding the bliss point required the preparation of 61 subtly distinct
      formulas -- 31 for the regular version and 30 for diet. The formulas
      were then subjected to 3,904 tastings organized in Los Angeles, Dallas,
      Chicago and Philadelphia. The Dr Pepper tasters began working through
      their samples, resting five minutes between each sip to restore their
      taste buds. After each sample, they gave numerically ranked answers to a
      set of questions: How much did they like it overall? How strong is the
      taste? How do they feel about the taste? How would they describe the
      quality of this product? How likely would they be to purchase this product?

      Moskowitz’s data -- compiled in a 135-page report for the soda maker --
      is tremendously fine-grained, showing how different people and groups of
      people feel about a strong vanilla taste versus weak, various aspects of
      aroma and the powerful sensory force that food scientists call “mouth
      feel.” This is the way a product interacts with the mouth, as defined
      more specifically by a host of related sensations, from dryness to
      gumminess to moisture release. These are terms more familiar to
      sommeliers, but the mouth feel of soda and many other food items,
      especially those high in fat, is second only to the bliss point in its
      ability to predict how much craving a product will induce.

      In addition to taste, the consumers were also tested on their response
      to color, which proved to be highly sensitive. “When we increased the
      level of the Dr Pepper flavoring, it gets darker and liking goes off,”
      Reisner said. These preferences can also be cross-referenced by age, sex
      and race.

      On Page 83 of the report, a thin blue line represents the amount of Dr
      Pepper flavoring needed to generate maximum appeal. The line is shaped
      like an upside-down U, just like the bliss-point curve that Moskowitz
      studied 30 years earlier in his Army lab. And at the top of the arc,
      there is not a single sweet spot but instead a sweet range, within which
      “bliss” was achievable. This meant that Cadbury could edge back on its
      key ingredient, the sugary Dr Pepper syrup, without falling out of the
      range and losing the bliss. Instead of using 2 milliliters of the
      flavoring, for instance, they could use 1.69 milliliters and achieve the
      same effect. The potential savings is merely a few percentage points,
      and it won’t mean much to individual consumers who are counting calories
      or grams of sugar. But for Dr Pepper, it adds up to colossal savings.
      “That looks like nothing,” Reisner said. “But it’s a lot of money. A lot
      of money. Millions.”

      The soda that emerged from all of Moskowitz’s variations became known as
      Cherry Vanilla Dr Pepper, and it proved successful beyond anything
      Cadbury imagined. In 2008, Cadbury split off its soft-drinks business,
      which included Snapple and 7-Up. The Dr Pepper Snapple Group has since
      been valued in excess of $11 billion.

      II. ‘Lunchtime Is All Yours’

      Sometimes innovations within the food industry happen in the lab, with
      scientists dialing in specific ingredients to achieve the greatest
      allure. And sometimes, as in the case of Oscar Mayer’s bologna crisis,
      the innovation involves putting old products in new packages.

      The 1980s were tough times for Oscar Mayer. Red-meat consumption fell
      more than 10 percent as fat became synonymous with cholesterol, clogged
      arteries, heart attacks and strokes. Anxiety set in at the company’s
      headquarters in Madison, Wis., where executives worried about their
      future and the pressure they faced from their new bosses at Philip Morris.

      Bob Drane was the company’s vice president for new business strategy and
      development when Oscar Mayer tapped him to try to find some way to
      reposition bologna and other troubled meats that were declining in
      popularity and sales. I met Drane at his home in Madison and went
      through the records he had kept on the birth of what would become much
      more than his solution to the company’s meat problem. In 1985, when
      Drane began working on the project, his orders were to “figure out how
      to contemporize what we’ve got.”

      Drane’s first move was to try to zero in not on what Americans felt
      about processed meat but on what Americans felt about lunch. He
      organized focus-group sessions with the people most responsible for
      buying bologna -- mothers -- and as they talked, he realized the most
      pressing issue for them was time. Working moms strove to provide
      healthful food, of course, but they spoke with real passion and at
      length about the morning crush, that nightmarish dash to get breakfast
      on the table and lunch packed and kids out the door. He summed up their
      remarks for me like this: “It’s awful. I am scrambling around. My kids
      are asking me for stuff. I’m trying to get myself ready to go to the
      office. I go to pack these lunches, and I don’t know what I’ve got.”
      What the moms revealed to him, Drane said, was “a gold mine of
      disappointments and problems.”

      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.

      Drane’s team moved into a nearby hotel, where they set out to find the
      right mix of components and container. They gathered around tables where
      bagfuls of meat, cheese, crackers and all sorts of wrapping material had
      been dumped, and they let their imaginations run. After snipping and
      taping their way through a host of failures, the model they fell back on
      was the American TV dinner -- and after some brainstorming about names
      (Lunch Kits? Go-Packs? Fun Mealz?), Lunchables were born.

      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.

      When I met with Kraft officials in 2011 to discuss their products and
      policies on nutrition, they had dropped the Maxed Out line and were
      trying to improve the nutritional profile of Lunchables through smaller,
      incremental changes that were less noticeable to consumers. Across the
      Lunchables line, they said they had reduced the salt, sugar and fat by
      about 10 percent, and new versions, featuring mandarin-orange and
      pineapple slices, were in development. These would be promoted as more
      healthful versions, with “fresh fruit,” but their list of ingredients --
      containing upward of 70 items, with sucrose, corn syrup, high-fructose
      corn syrup and fruit concentrate all in the same tray -- have been met
      with intense criticism from outside the industry.

      One of the company’s responses to criticism is that kids don’t eat the
      Lunchables every day -- on top of which, when it came to trying to feed
      them more healthful foods, kids themselves were unreliable. When their
      parents packed fresh carrots, apples and water, they couldn’t be trusted
      to eat them. Once in school, they often trashed the healthful stuff in
      their brown bags to get right to the sweets.

      This idea -- that kids are in control -- would become a key concept in
      the evolving marketing campaigns for the trays. In what would prove to
      be their greatest achievement of all, the Lunchables team would delve
      into adolescent psychology to discover that it wasn’t the food in the
      trays that excited the kids; it was the feeling of power it brought to
      their lives. As Bob Eckert, then the C.E.O. of Kraft, put it in 1999:
      “Lunchables aren’t about lunch. It’s about kids being able to put
      together what they want to eat, anytime, anywhere.”

      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.”

      Drane himself paused only briefly when I asked him if, looking back, he
      was proud of creating the trays. “Lots of things are trade-offs,” he
      said. “And I do believe it’s easy to rationalize anything. In the end, I
      wish that the nutritional profile of the thing could have been better,
      but I don’t view the entire project as anything but a positive
      contribution to people’s lives.”

      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!”

      III. ‘It’s Called Vanishing Caloric Density.’

      At a symposium for nutrition scientists in Los Angeles on Feb. 15, 1985,
      a professor of pharmacology from Helsinki named Heikki Karppanen told
      the remarkable story of Finland’s effort to address its salt habit. In
      the late 1970s, the Finns were consuming huge amounts of sodium, eating
      on average more than two teaspoons of salt a day. As a result, the
      country had developed significant issues with high blood pressure, and
      men in the eastern part of Finland had the highest rate of fatal
      cardiovascular disease in the world. Research showed that this plague
      was not just a quirk of genetics or a result of a sedentary lifestyle --
      it was also owing to processed foods. So when Finnish authorities moved
      to address the problem, they went right after the manufacturers. (The
      Finnish response worked. Every grocery item that was heavy in salt would
      come to be marked prominently with the warning “High Salt Content.” By
      2007, Finland’s per capita consumption of salt had dropped by a third,
      and this shift -- along with improved medical care -- was accompanied by
      a 75 percent to 80 percent decline in the number of deaths from strokes
      and heart disease.)

      Karppanen’s presentation was met with applause, but one man in the crowd
      seemed particularly intrigued by the presentation, and as Karppanen left
      the stage, the man intercepted him and asked if they could talk more
      over dinner. Their conversation later that night was not at all what
      Karppanen was expecting. His host did indeed have an interest in salt,
      but from quite a different vantage point: the man’s name was Robert
      I-San Lin, and from 1974 to 1982, he worked as the chief scientist for
      Frito-Lay, the nearly $3-billion-a-year manufacturer of Lay’s, Doritos,
      Cheetos and Fritos.

      Lin’s time at Frito-Lay coincided with the first attacks by nutrition
      advocates on salty foods and the first calls for federal regulators to
      reclassify salt as a “risky” food additive, which could have subjected
      it to severe controls. No company took this threat more seriously -- or
      more personally -- than Frito-Lay, Lin explained to Karppanen over their
      dinner. Three years after he left Frito-Lay, he was still anguished over
      his inability to effectively change the company’s recipes and practices.

      By chance, I ran across a letter that Lin sent to Karppanen three weeks
      after that dinner, buried in some files to which I had gained access.
      Attached to the letter was a memo written when Lin was at Frito-Lay,
      which detailed some of the company’s efforts in defending salt. I
      tracked Lin down in Irvine, Calif., where we spent several days going
      through the internal company memos, strategy papers and handwritten
      notes he had kept. The documents were evidence of the concern that Lin
      had for consumers and of the company’s intent on using science not to
      address the health concerns but to thwart them. 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.”

      Not much had changed by 1986, except Frito-Lay found itself on a rare
      cold streak. The company had introduced a series of high-profile
      products that failed miserably. Toppels, a cracker with cheese topping;
      Stuffers, a shell with a variety of fillings; Rumbles, a bite-size
      granola snack -- they all came and went in a blink, and the company took
      a $52 million hit. Around that time, the marketing team was joined by
      Dwight Riskey, an expert on cravings who had been a fellow at the Monell
      Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, where he was part of a team of
      scientists that found that people could beat their salt habits simply by
      refraining from salty foods long enough for their taste buds to return
      to a normal level of sensitivity. He had also done work on the bliss
      point, showing how a product’s allure is contextual, shaped partly by
      the other foods a person is eating, and that it changes as people age.
      This seemed to help explain why Frito-Lay was having so much trouble
      selling new snacks. The largest single block of customers, the baby
      boomers, had begun hitting middle age. According to the research, this
      suggested that their liking for salty snacks -- both in the
      concentration of salt and how much they ate -- would be tapering off.
      Along with the rest of the snack-food industry, Frito-Lay anticipated
      lower sales because of an aging population, and marketing plans were
      adjusted to focus even more intently on younger consumers.

      Except that snack sales didn’t decline as everyone had projected,
      Frito-Lay’s doomed product launches notwithstanding. Poring over data
      one day in his home office, trying to understand just who was consuming
      all the snack food, Riskey realized that he and his colleagues had been
      misreading things all along. They had been measuring the snacking habits
      of different age groups and were seeing what they expected to see, that
      older consumers ate less than those in their 20s. But what they weren’t
      measuring, Riskey realized, is how those snacking habits of the boomers
      compared to themselves when they were in their 20s. When he called up a
      new set of sales data and performed what’s called a cohort study,
      following a single group over time, a far more encouraging picture --
      for Frito-Lay, anyway -- emerged. The baby boomers were not eating fewer
      salty snacks as they aged. “In fact, as those people aged, their
      consumption of all those segments -- the cookies, the crackers, the
      candy, the chips -- was going up,” Riskey said. “They were not only
      eating what they ate when they were younger, they were eating more of
      it.” In fact, everyone in the country, on average, was eating more salty
      snacks than they used to. The rate of consumption was edging up about
      one-third of a pound every year, with the average intake of snacks like
      chips and cheese crackers pushing past 12 pounds a year.

      Riskey had a theory about what caused this surge: Eating real meals had
      become a thing of the past. Baby boomers, especially, seemed to have
      greatly cut down on regular meals. They were skipping breakfast when
      they had early-morning meetings. They skipped lunch when they then
      needed to catch up on work because of those meetings. They skipped
      dinner when their kids stayed out late or grew up and moved out of the
      house. And when they skipped these meals, they replaced them with
      snacks. “We looked at this behavior, and said, ‘Oh, my gosh, people were
      skipping meals right and left,’ ” Riskey told me. “It was amazing.” This
      led to the next realization, that baby boomers did not represent “a
      category that is mature, with no growth. This is a category that has
      huge growth potential.”

      The food technicians stopped worrying about inventing new products and
      instead embraced the industry’s most reliable method for getting
      consumers to buy more: the line extension. The classic Lay’s potato
      chips were joined by Salt & Vinegar, Salt & Pepper and Cheddar & Sour
      Cream. They put out Chili-Cheese-flavored Fritos, and Cheetos were
      transformed into 21 varieties. Frito-Lay had a formidable research
      complex near Dallas, where nearly 500 chemists, psychologists and
      technicians conducted research that cost up to $30 million a year, and
      the science corps focused intense amounts of resources on questions of
      crunch, mouth feel and aroma for each of these items. Their tools
      included a $40,000 device that simulated a chewing mouth to test and
      perfect the chips, discovering things like the perfect break point:
      people like a chip that snaps with about four pounds of pressure per
      square inch.

      To get a better feel for their work, I called on Steven Witherly, a food
      scientist who wrote a fascinating guide for industry insiders titled,
      “Why Humans Like Junk Food.” I brought him two shopping bags filled with
      a variety of chips to taste. He zeroed right in on the Cheetos. “This,”
      Witherly said, “is one of the most marvelously constructed foods on the
      planet, in terms of pure pleasure.” He ticked off a dozen attributes of
      the Cheetos that make the brain say more. But the one he focused on most
      was the puff’s uncanny ability to melt in the mouth. “It’s called
      vanishing caloric density,” Witherly said. “If something melts down
      quickly, your brain thinks that there’s no calories in it . . . you can
      just keep eating it forever.”

      As for their marketing troubles, in a March 2010 meeting, Frito-Lay
      executives hastened to tell their Wall Street investors that the 1.4
      billion boomers worldwide weren’t being neglected; they were redoubling
      their efforts to understand exactly what it was that boomers most wanted
      in a snack chip. Which was basically everything: great taste, maximum
      bliss but minimal guilt about health and more maturity than puffs. “They
      snack a lot,” Frito-Lay’s chief marketing officer, Ann Mukherjee, told
      the investors. “But what they’re looking for is very different. They’re
      looking for new experiences, real food experiences.” Frito-Lay acquired
      Stacy’s Pita Chip Company, which was started by a Massachusetts couple
      who made food-cart sandwiches and started serving pita chips to their
      customers in the mid-1990s. In Frito-Lay’s hands, the pita chips
      averaged 270 milligrams of sodium -- nearly one-fifth a whole day’s
      recommended maximum for most American adults -- and were a huge hit
      among boomers.

      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.”

      Carey’s quote reminded me of something I read in the early stages of my
      reporting, a 24-page report prepared for Frito-Lay in 1957 by a
      psychologist named Ernest Dichter. The company’s chips, he wrote, were
      not selling as well as they could for one simple reason: “While people
      like and enjoy potato chips, they feel guilty about liking them. . . .
      Unconsciously, people expect to be punished for ‘letting themselves go’
      and enjoying them.” Dichter listed seven “fears and resistances” to the
      chips: “You can’t stop eating them; they’re fattening; they’re not good
      for you; they’re greasy and messy to eat; they’re too expensive; it’s
      hard to store the leftovers; and they’re bad for children.” He spent the
      rest of his memo laying out his prescriptions, which in time would
      become widely used not just by Frito-Lay but also by the entire
      industry. Dichter suggested that Frito-Lay avoid using the word “fried”
      in referring to its chips and adopt instead the more healthful-sounding
      term “toasted.” To counteract the “fear of letting oneself go,” he
      suggested repacking the chips into smaller bags. “The more-anxious
      consumers, the ones who have the deepest fears about their capacity to
      control their appetite, will tend to sense the function of the new pack
      and select it,” he said.

      Dichter advised Frito-Lay to move its chips out of the realm of
      between-meals snacking and turn them into an ever-present item in the
      American diet. “The increased use of potato chips and other Lay’s
      products as a part of the regular fare served by restaurants and
      sandwich bars should be encouraged in a concentrated way,” Dichter said,
      citing a string of examples: “potato chips with soup, with fruit or
      vegetable juice appetizers; potato chips served as a vegetable on the
      main dish; potato chips with salad; potato chips with egg dishes for
      breakfast; potato chips with sandwich orders.”

      In 2011, The New England Journal of Medicine published a study that shed
      new light on America’s weight gain. The subjects -- 120,877 women and
      men -- were all professionals in the health field, and were likely to be
      more conscious about nutrition, so the findings might well understate
      the overall trend. Using data back to 1986, the researchers monitored
      everything the participants ate, as well as their physical activity and
      smoking. They found that every four years, the participants exercised
      less, watched TV more and gained an average of 3.35 pounds. The
      researchers parsed the data by the caloric content of the foods being
      eaten, and found the top contributors to weight gain included red meat
      and processed meats, sugar-sweetened beverages and potatoes, including
      mashed and French fries. But the largest weight-inducing food was the
      potato chip. The coating of salt, the fat content that rewards the brain
      with instant feelings of pleasure, the sugar that exists not as an
      additive but in the starch of the potato itself -- all of this combines
      to make it the perfect addictive food. “The starch is readily absorbed,”
      Eric Rimm, an associate professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the
      Harvard School of Public Health and one of the study’s authors, told me.
      “More quickly even than a similar amount of sugar. The starch, in turn,
      causes the glucose levels in the blood to spike” -- which can result in
      a craving for more.

      If Americans snacked only occasionally, and in small amounts, this would
      not present the enormous problem that it does. But because so much money
      and effort has been invested over decades in engineering and then
      relentlessly selling these products, the effects are seemingly
      impossible to unwind. More than 30 years have passed since Robert Lin
      first tangled with Frito-Lay on the imperative of the company to deal
      with the formulation of its snacks, but as we sat at his dining-room
      table, sifting through his records, the feelings of regret still played
      on his face. In his view, three decades had been lost, time that he and
      a lot of other smart scientists could have spent searching for ways to
      ease the addiction to salt, sugar and fat. “I couldn’t do much about
      it,” he told me. “I feel so sorry for the public.”

      IV. ‘These People Need a Lot of Things, but They Don’t Need a Coke.’

      The growing attention Americans are paying to what they put into their
      mouths has touched off a new scramble by the processed-food companies to
      address health concerns. Pressed by the Obama administration and
      consumers, Kraft, Nestlé, Pepsi, Campbell and General Mills, among
      others, have begun to trim the loads of salt, sugar and fat in many
      products. And with consumer advocates pushing for more government
      intervention, Coca-Cola made headlines in January by releasing ads that
      promoted its bottled water and low-calorie drinks as a way to counter
      obesity. Predictably, the ads drew a new volley of scorn from critics
      who pointed to the company’s continuing drive to sell sugary Coke.

      One of the other executives I spoke with at length was Jeffrey Dunn,
      who, in 2001, at age 44, was directing more than half of Coca-Cola’s $20
      billion in annual sales as president and chief operating officer in both
      North and South America. In an effort to control as much market share as
      possible, Coke extended its aggressive marketing to especially poor or
      vulnerable areas of the U.S., like New Orleans -- where people were
      drinking twice as much Coke as the national average -- or Rome, Ga.,
      where the per capita intake was nearly three Cokes a day. In Coke’s
      headquarters in Atlanta, the biggest consumers were referred to as
      “heavy users.” “The other model we use was called ‘drinks and drinkers,’
      ” Dunn said. “How many drinkers do I have? And how many drinks do they
      drink? If you lost one of those heavy users, if somebody just decided to
      stop drinking Coke, how many drinkers would you have to get, at low
      velocity, to make up for that heavy user? The answer is a lot. It’s more
      efficient to get my existing users to drink more.”

      One of Dunn’s lieutenants, Todd Putman, who worked at Coca-Cola from
      1997 to 2001, said the goal became much larger than merely beating the
      rival brands; Coca-Cola strove to outsell every other thing people
      drank, including milk and water. The marketing division’s efforts boiled
      down to one question, Putman said: “How can we drive more ounces into
      more bodies more often?” (In response to Putman’s remarks, Coke said its
      goals have changed and that it now focuses on providing consumers with
      more low- or no-calorie products.)

      In his capacity, Dunn was making frequent trips to Brazil, where the
      company had recently begun a push to increase consumption of Coke among
      the many Brazilians living in favelas. The company’s strategy was to
      repackage Coke into smaller, more affordable 6.7-ounce bottles, just 20
      cents each. Coke was not alone in seeing Brazil as a potential boon;
      Nestlé began deploying battalions of women to travel poor neighborhoods,
      hawking American-style processed foods door to door. But Coke was Dunn’s
      concern, and on one trip, as he walked through one of the impoverished
      areas, he had an epiphany. “A voice in my head says, ‘These people need
      a lot of things, but they don’t need a Coke.’ I almost threw up.”

      Dunn returned to Atlanta, determined to make some changes. He didn’t
      want to abandon the soda business, but he did want to try to steer the
      company into a more healthful mode, and one of the things he pushed for
      was to stop marketing Coke in public schools. The independent companies
      that bottled Coke viewed his plans as reactionary. A director of one
      bottler wrote a letter to Coke’s chief executive and board asking for
      Dunn’s head. “He said what I had done was the worst thing he had seen in
      50 years in the business,” Dunn said. “Just to placate these crazy
      leftist school districts who were trying to keep people from having
      their Coke. He said I was an embarrassment to the company, and I should
      be fired.” In February 2004, he was.

      Dunn told me that talking about Coke’s business today was by no means
      easy and, because he continues to work in the food business, not without
      risk. “You really don’t want them mad at you,” he said. “And I don’t
      mean that, like, I’m going to end up at the bottom of the bay. But they
      don’t have a sense of humor when it comes to this stuff. They’re a very,
      very aggressive company.”

      When I met with Dunn, he told me not just about his years at Coke but
      also about his new marketing venture. In April 2010, he met with three
      executives from Madison Dearborn Partners, a private-equity firm based
      in Chicago with a wide-ranging portfolio of investments. They recently
      hired Dunn to run one of their newest acquisitions -- a food producer in
      the San Joaquin Valley. As they sat in the hotel’s meeting room, the men
      listened to Dunn’s marketing pitch. He talked about giving the product a
      personality that was bold and irreverent, conveying the idea that this
      was the ultimate snack food. He went into detail on how he would target
      a special segment of the 146 million Americans who are regular snackers
      -- mothers, children, young professionals -- people, he said, who “keep
      their snacking ritual fresh by trying a new food product when it catches
      their attention.”

      He explained how he would deploy strategic storytelling in the ad
      campaign for this snack, using a key phrase that had been developed with
      much calculation: “Eat ’Em Like Junk Food.”

      After 45 minutes, Dunn clicked off the last slide and thanked the men
      for coming. Madison’s portfolio contained the largest Burger King
      franchise in the world, the Ruth’s Chris Steak House chain and a
      processed-food maker called AdvancePierre whose lineup includes the
      Jamwich, a peanut-butter-and-jelly contrivance that comes frozen,
      crustless and embedded with four kinds of sugars.

      The snack that Dunn was proposing to sell: carrots. Plain, fresh
      carrots. No added sugar. No creamy sauce or dips. No salt. Just baby
      carrots, washed, bagged, then sold into the deadly dull produce aisle.

      “We act like a snack, not a vegetable,” he told the investors. “We
      exploit the rules of junk food to fuel the baby-carrot conversation. We
      are pro-junk-food behavior but anti-junk-food establishment.”

      The investors were thinking only about sales. They had already bought
      one of the two biggest farm producers of baby carrots in the country,
      and they’d hired Dunn to run the whole operation. Now, after his pitch,
      they were relieved. Dunn had figured out that using the industry’s own
      marketing ploys would work better than anything else. He drew from the
      bag of tricks that he mastered in his 20 years at Coca-Cola, where he
      learned one of the most critical rules in processed food: The selling of
      food matters as much as the food itself.

      Later, describing his new line of work, Dunn told me he was doing
      penance for his Coca-Cola years. “I’m paying my karmic debt,” he said.

      ...................

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      ...................

      David Sunfellow
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