Registered Dietitian, Board Certified in Sports Nutrition, Food Scientist

“A Little Knowledge Is a Dangerous Thing: How the Author Exploited the Food Giants”

Michael Moss, in his book Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, attempts to build a case that the food industry scientifically and strategically manipulates various ingredients in food and beverages to drive overconsumption, which in turn has lead to the high rates of obesity.  No one can argue that consuming excess calories, regardless of where those calories come from whether from fresh or processed foods along with lack of physical activity will increase weight. However, misrepresenting the scientific profession of food science is where I must take issue. Possessing a Ph.D. in food science and having worked in the food industry, I can tell you that although Mr. Moss may feel he has cracked the scientific code of why people are supposedly “addicted” to food products, he has misunderstood what food science accomplishes and his views, though well written should not be considered scientifically accurate or to have any scientific validity.

Let’s first consider how loosely the term “addiction” is being used. This idea is mostly based on brain imaging studies where yes, the research has shown that reward from foods and drugs of addiction can stimulate the same regions of the brain, but that does not mean that the food is addicting. The brain indeed responds positively to foods and the reward circuitry in response to food has been well characterized.  Because we humans happened to find drugs of addiction which also lead to responses in the same region does not mean food is addicting, just that we were able to discover substances other than food that would also be rewarding.  The other very negative aspects of these drugs have little to do with their reward value.  Furthermore, in brain imaging studies there is more going on than just reward leading to activity. The activity in the brain is dependent upon numerous factors, including one’s fed state (hungry vs. satisfied), weight status (overweight vs. normal weight) and even stress level.

The notion of addiction to food would be similar to the notion of addiction to breathing.  Consuming food is a necessary biological function and one cannot jump to the conclusion there is an addiction present with any particular food. In fact, music, parental love or other pleasurable experiences can stimulate these same regions of the brain. Does this mean we have a defined addiction to all of these stimuli?  I, along with other scientists, would argue that addiction is not the issue, but rather overconsumption of food in general. The most extreme level of overeating is seen in binge eating disorder (BED), which has been shown not to be related to one particular food or food substance but to a whole realm of psychological factors. Research indicates those who have BED are most often normal or underweight with only approximately 35% being overweight, so in theory it is not what you are eating but how you are eating (Meule, 2011). Thus to claim the industry has developed “addictive” foods is complete fallacy and ultimately sets up a notion of “forbidden” foods or foods that we should avoid, which could in turn lead to binge eating.

Second, focusing on sugar, the human desire for sweet taste is innate.  It transcends all cultures, sex, age and race. Even amniotic fluid is sweet due to the amino acids it contains.  A newborn exposed to external sweetness for the first time readily accepts this taste stimuli, which assists in establishing feeding behavior.  Human breast milk is sweet, and in fact it is much sweeter than other milks. The innate response to taste stimuli also holds true with sour and bitter taste. Give a newborn a taste like lemon juice and it is immediately rejected. We know the association of sweet taste with carbohydrates can elicit satiety signals along with a sensory award, which can be described with sensory terms, such as “liking or “acceptable.” One must also recognize that many other factors beyond physiological signals affect how much is eaten, such as social setting, perception of appropriate amount to be eaten, portion sizes, habitual behavior, socioeconomic status, and age (Bellisle, 2012). When considering increased food intake, one must also consider lifestyle determinants. Recent research also suggests that television watching, alcohol intake and sleep deprivation has likely contributed to excessive eating (Chapman, 2012). Among the claims against sugar, Moss contends that the obesity crisis has also resulted from consumption of soda. However, the 2010 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee determined limited evidence shows that intake of sugar sweetened beverages is linked to higher caloric intake in adults. It should also be noted that published research of the relationship between sugar sweetened beverage and a variety of health outcomes are relatively poor quality (Weed, 2011). The reality is that it is not any one food or beverage or any one ingredient, like sugar but a multitude of factors which has led to high obesity rates.

Third, at the heart of sensory science of food is the desire to find an optimum level and combination of ingredients to induce liking or as Moss describes a “bliss point.” To imply the industry is manipulating consumers by ensuring the product has maximum acceptability is ridiculous. Would we say a chef who makes a great tasting recipe is trying to manipulate the consumer?  Of course the food industry or anyone preparing food tries to make it taste as good as they can.   But what food science has also done is to reduce spoilage, increase availability and variety and feed a planet of over 4 billion people.  Regardless of the product or ingredients, you will not find consumer tasting panels being conducted in conjunction with MRI scans of consumers’ brains to ensure maximum “addiction.” Any consumer focused industry actively seeks to ensure optimum consumer acceptability. For example, the automobile industry ensures the smell and touch of the leather, the music played when the doors open, or even the sound of the engine when started captures the buyer for the “optimum driving experience.” These types of examples are endless. Numerous and diverse industries use sensory science to determine consumer liking and ultimately purchase behavior. Why should the food industry be held to a different scientific approach? Foods that meet consumer preferences for taste, nutrition, affordability and convenience offer the most flexibility in building a healthful diet. Keep in mind this same science is used when developing an array of products, not just those containing salt, sugar, and fat.

Throughout the book, Moss provides limited testimonial from former employees of the industry, but then goes on to make his own interpretation, commentary, and judgment without any scientific merit. The very criticism he uses against industry regarding driving profits is the same type of argument one could use regarding his book and associated publicity increasing his own financial gain. In the end Moss claims he wants to empower consumers to understand how foods are produced so they can ultimately resist purchasing. Unfortunately continuing to play the blame game that the food industry is responsible for obesity, due to the “addictive” nature of these foods may only result in consumers, particularly those that are overweight feeling doomed. When books such as these destroy the confidence of consumers in their food supply the motivation to eat a balanced diet may quickly diminish. Foods are only beneficial to health if eaten – and are more likely to be eaten if they meet consumer preferences.