Michael Moss Interview: Why We Should Think About Junk Food Like Cigarettes
What was the most shocking thing you found on those Philip Morris records?
In terms of addiction, it was their struggle to admit that something they had vehemently denied was addicting, actually addicting. Most shocking, however, wasn’t in the documents, but when I sat down with former top Philip Morris attorney, Steve Parrish. We just talked about smoking and its smoking habits, and he said, “You see, I’m one of those people who could take out my pack of cigarettes during a business meeting and have a cigarette and put it away, and I’m not compelled to keep it until the next Day to look at or take out again. “But he goes and my jaw drops. “But I couldn’t go anywhere near our oreo cookies for fear of losing control because I would eat half the bag.” I think one of the most surprising and shocking things is how many insiders don’t touch their own products. Either because they know the health effects of it or because they know they will lose control.
How does food addiction compare with addiction to heroin, cigarettes or the like? Where’s the difference?
I didn’t think it was ridiculous to compare Twinkies to heroin, I thought that food is in some ways even stronger than drugs. One of these possibilities is memory. We start making memories for food at an incredibly young age, possibly even in the womb. And those memories stay incredibly powerful for us and stay with us for the rest of our lives, whereas drug addiction tends to take us into our teenage years and last through our mid to late 20s. These are strong memories, but they are generally limited to this time frame. I think memory is stronger in food.
The food environment is generally more powerful than drugs. For someone who has problems with sugar, every time you go shopping is like an alcoholic going to a bar. You can’t go without food either. With that in mind, I think eating is more difficult. And then, when you talked to these scientists who were studying drugs and now studying food, they put pressure on me that speed is one of the hallmarks of addiction. The faster a substance hits the brain, the more excited the brain becomes and the sooner you can act on that substance impulsively. It turns out that there is nothing that hits the brain faster than food.
To what extent is the food industry aware of and exploiting all of this?
Part of me still refuses to view this as this evil realm that has purposely tried to make us sick of their products. These are companies that do what all companies want to do, which is make as much money as possible by selling as much product as possible. But I have to say, when you look at their efforts in all those waking hours to maximize the appeal of their products, it’s a really fine line between doing something that makes people excited and want more and getting them addicted, so they ‘you completely lose free will on this matter.
But I think these companies have come to understand over the years that they may have crossed that line. I’ll give you this crazy example I ran into recently. The current owner of Nabisco posted a video in which a nutritionist comes in to help us immerse ourselves in what they call mindful snacking, as an antidote to pointless snacking, which their products are all about. And so she goes over these steps you can take to gain control over your eating habits. The last step is just so beautiful. She has a plate and puts three oreo cookies on it. And she says, “Just try to pick up one cookie,” don’t stuff your whole mouth with it, “and just take a bite of the one cookie, and before you devour it, put it back on the plate … and try to control yourself. ”It was such a revelation, however, because here is a company that makes one of the greatest icons in the grocery store. This obviously speaks to inside knowledge of the problem, which means that for so many of us the product is so perfectly designed that we all lose willpower. I think that’s an example of where big companies really know how powerful their products are.