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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.

Every chef is said to have a secret junk food craving. For Thomas Keller, chef-owner of Per Se and The French Laundry, two of the most acclaimed restaurants in the country, it's Krispy Kreme Donuts and In-N-Out cheeseburgers. For David Bouley, New York's reigning chef in the '90s, it's "high-quality potato chips."

"Father of American cuisine" James Beard "loved McDonald's fries," while Paul Bocuse, an originator of nouvelle cuisine, once declared McDonald's "are the best French fries I have ever eaten." Masaharu Morimoto is partial to "Philly cheese steaks," and Jean-Georges Vongerichten confesses a weakness for Wendy's spicy chicken sandwich. Other accomplished but less-famous chefs admit to craving everything from Peanut M&Ms, Pringles and Combos to Kettle Chips and Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Having attended culinary school and cooked professionally, I can wax rhapsodic about epicurean delights such as squab, Beluga caviar, black truffles, porcini mushrooms, Iberico Ham, langoustines, and acres of exceptional vegetables and fruits. But I also have an unabashed junk food craving: Nacho Cheese Doritos. Sure, there are plenty of other junk foods I enjoy, whether it's Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream or Entenmann's baked goods, but Doritos are the one thing I desire and seek out regularly. (Not that I ever have to look that hard; I've encountered them everywhere from rural villages in Guatemala to tiny towns in the Canadian Arctic.)

For years I wondered why I craved Doritos. I knew the Nacho Cheese powder, which coats your fingers in day-glo orange deliciousness, was one component, as were the fatty, salty chips that crackle and melt into a pleasing mass as you crunch them. I figured there was a dollop of nostalgia in the mix, but an ingredient was still missing in my understanding. Then I read a spate of articles about "umami," designated the fifth taste, along with sweet, sour, salty, and bitter, means "deliciousness" in Japanese and is described as "a meaty, savory, satisfying taste."

I knew some foods -- parmesan cheese, seaweed, shellfish, tomatoes, mushrooms and meats -- were high in umami-rich compounds such as glutamate, inosinate and guanylate. (Most people know umami from the much-maligned MSG, or mono sodium glutamate.) And I knew combining various sources of umami -- such as the bonito-flake and kombu-seaweed broth known as dashi, the foundational stock of Japanese cuisine -- magnified the effect and delivered a uniquely satisfying wallop of flavor. 

What I didn't know was that "Nacho-cheese-flavor Doritos, which contain five separate forms of glutamate, may be even richer in umami than the finest kombu dashi (kelp stock) in Japan," according to a New York Times article from last year.

Mystery solved. Now I knew that whenever the Doritos bug bit me, I was jonesing for umami. I had to admit it: I am a junk food junkie and Frito-Lay is my pusher-man.

I am hardly alone. Frito-Lay is the snack-food peddler to the world, with over $43 billion in revenue in 2008. The 43-year-old cheesy chip is a "category killer," dominating the tortilla chip market with a 32 percent share in 2006, and number two in the entire U.S. "sweet and savory snacks category," just behind Lay's potato chips. 

$1.7 billion in annual sales in the U.S, is big business. Behind the enigma of Doritos’ dominance, and the lure of junk food to even the most refined palettes in the world, are the wonders of food science. That science, in the service of industrial capitalism, has hooked on us a food system that is destroying our health with obesity-related diseases. And that food system is based on a system of factory farming at one end, which churns out cheap, taxpayer-subsidized commodities like corn, vegetable oil and sweeteners, and the giant food processors at the other, like Frito-Lay, that take these commodities and concoct them into endless forms of addictive junk foods.