Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Give Me Snickers Or Give Me Death

Food manufacturers are, according to the head of the FDA, manipulating foods to make them taste so good that you can't help but want more. Their tactics include: hitting a "bliss point" of fats, salt, and sugar (the FDA head, Dr. David Kessler, cites a Snickers bar and the way it melts in your mouth while still providing crunch); not overdoing any of the pleasure points so as to avoid creating consumer overwhelm; designing foods with layers of taste to engage our brains. Companies "design food for irresistibility... It's been part of their business plans."

To which I say, no shit? As opposed to the food companies that create foods that don't taste good, in order to get you to consume less of them?

Listen, I'm all for companies taking responsibility for agitating addictive behaviors in order to exploit the public. (See also: the tobacco industry.) But there is a huge difference between a company manipulating data about their product (or hiding said data, or creating marketing terms that imply something the product isn't) and manipulating the product to make it, well, better. I'm glad to see legislation passed to ban the marketing of "light" cigarettes; I was steamed when it came out that low-fat frozen dessert CremaLita was a flat-out lie. I'm not entirely sure how I feel about the anti-McDonald's crusade--I hate that McDonald's has become a go-to meal option for so much of America, but it's not like most people get a triple-decker with fries because they think it's the most nutritious option available to them. Still, I see the point of the crusade: In a lot of communities, especially poor communities where the immediate stress relief of a milkshake is a helluva lot more appealing than a spinach salad, McDonald's is a social center; by keeping their nutritional data hidden, they're doing a public health disservice. Fine.

But to accuse companies like Mars (which makes Snickers) of "manipulating" products so that they taste good is flat-out ridiculous. I'm well aware of the ways that sugar acts upon the nervous system, creating an addictive pattern of sorts--and the high-fructose corn syrup found in these products raises this pattern to a new level. But sugar is not crack, as much as some people would like to have you believe, and junk food is designed to taste good, and that's not manipulation--that's the nature of junk food.

America's food landscape is outrageous--of this I have no doubt. But I recently spent six weeks in Vietnam. And you know what they have in stores there? Candy bars, and boxes of cookies, and loads of candy. Coffee is consumed there with sweetened condensed milk, making our milk-and-sugar habit seem downright pure. Vietnam is a poor country, so people can't afford to gorge themselves on cookies, but that's not all of the equation. Americans are fat because we take emotional refuge in our excess; it's how we express both the pride and ennui that being the first of the first-world nations brings. Companies might exploit this tendency, but they are not creating it. I guess I'm coming down on the libertarian side of junk-food regulation at last.

1 comment:

  1. In most ways, I agree with you. When we're talking about a candy bar, we can't really complain about fat and sugar content, can we? Fat tastes good. Sugar tastes good. That's why we like candy bars.

    I do object to the constant use of high fructose corn syrup. Yes, just like sucrose it's made of pretty much equal parts fructose and glucose - except that in sucrose those molecules are bonded. But anyway. I get upset when food marketers try to play like their chips are the next great diet fad - please don't tell me about how much fiber your junk has or how it's zero cholesterol, people; they're freaking chips. And for the love of all things good in the world, do NOT tell me that one candy bar or one bag of chocolate bits or anything less than a two liter of soda is more than one serving size - it isn't. Label it as one serving, and show all of the fat and calories that are in the whole package, because that's how it's gonna get consumed, and you know it. Oh, those numbers are bad for marketing? Well then I guess you're gonna have to make smaller packages.

    Point of all my rambling being, when we're talking about junk food, yeah, no one can really complain about it not being healthy. It's junk food! And yes, sugar is addictive, even in its purest forms. All we can ask is that we get correct nutritional information, and that health claims (there are no useful vitamins in diet coke!) are left aside.

    It's when we get to products like "healthy choice" or "lean cuisine" that I start to get really frustrated... but that's a different topic entirely.