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How We Became a Society of Gluttonous Junk Food Addicts

Junk food is killing us slowly with diabetes, heart disease and cancer. But we can't stop because we're hooked, and the food industry is the pusher.

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Steven Witherly begins his book, Why Humans Like Junk Food , by noting in studying the "psychobiology" of Doritos he consumed the "food intake and chemical senses literature -- over five hundred research reports and four thousand abstracts -- in order to discern the popularity of Doritos." Witherly coined the term "Doritos Effect" to explain its popularity and in his book outlines 14 separate ways in which Doritos appeals to us.

There’s the "taste-active components," sugar, salt and umami; ingredients like buttermilk solids, lactic acid, and citric acid that stimulate saliva, creating a "mouth-watering" sensation; the "high dynamic contrast" of powder-coated thin, hard chips that melt in the mouth; a complex flavor aroma; a high level of fat that activates "fat recognition receptors in the mouth … increases levels of gut hormones linked to reduction in anxiety … activates brains systems for reward, and enhances ingestion for more fat"; toasted, fried corn that triggers our evolutionary predilection for cooked foods; starches that break down quickly, boosting blood levels of insulin and glucose; and so on. 

Witherly explains that some umami sources like MSG don’t have much taste by themselves, but when you add salt,"the hedonic flavors just explode!" And Doritos has plenty of both. The tiny 2-oz. bag of Doritos I'm holding, which in the past would be a warm-up to a Nacho Cheesier dinner, lists MSG near the top, before "buttermilk solids," along with nearly one-sixth of my recommended daily intake of sodium. 

One aspect of Doritos that whet my curiosity was, how much does Frito-Lay spend on goods like corn, oil and cheese? Not surprisingly, this data was nowhere to be found in the annual report of Pepsico, Frito-Lay’s parent company. But I gleaned a clue from a 1991 New York Times article. In it, a Wall Street analyst stated that Frito-Lay’s profit margin, around 19 percent in those days (which is close to its margin of late), approached that of Kellogg's. The analyst, an expert on the food industry, said: "Kellogg buys corn for 4 cents a pound and sells it for $2 a box." That's a markup of nearly 5,000 percent over the base ingredient. 

I’ll save you the math, but Frito-Lay may do even better than Kellogg's. If it uses two ounces of cornmeal in my 99 cents bag of Doritos, it apparently costs the snack-food giant less than one measly penny. And here’s a critical point about the food industry. The more they can process basic food commodities, the more profits they can gobble up at the expense of farmers. In The End of Food , Paul Roberts writes that in the 1950s, farmers received about half the retail price for the finished food product. By 2000, "this farm share had fallen below 20 percent."

This is the result of the global food system constructed by the U.S. and other Western powers under the World Trade Organization. Countries that once strived for food security by supporting their domestic farmers are now forced -- in the name of free trade -- to open their agricultural sectors to competition from heavily subsidized Western agribusinesses. By the mid-1990s, according to rural sociologist Philip McMichael, 80 percent of farm subsidies in Western countries went to "the largest 20 percent of (corporate) farms, rendering small farmers increasingly vulnerable to the vicissitudes of a deregulated (and increasingly privately managed) global market for agricultural products."

The WTO-enforced system and government subsidies enables food giants -- such as Pepsico, Kraft, Mars, Coca-Cola, McDonald's, Burger King and Wal-Mart -- to source their ingredients globally, giving them the power to force down prices, which drives more and more farmers off the land in the global North and South alike. Then the food companies turn around and manufacture high-profit products that seem like an unbelievable bargain to us. In fact, they make this a selling point, and not just with "Dollar Menus."