How We Became a Society of Gluttonous Junk Food Addicts

Personal Health

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.

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."

Last year, in the wake of the economic meltdown, KFC launched the "10 Dollar Challenge," inviting families to try to recreate a meal of seven pieces of fried chicken, four biscuits and a side for less than its asking price of 10 bucks. Of course this is a virtually impossible feat, apart from dumpster diving. But KFC isn’t hawking alfalfa sprouts and a plate of mashed yeast at that price. Witherly, in Why Humans Like Junk Food, writes that "high energy density food is associated with high food pleasure." The corporate food's revenue model is based on designing products oozing with fat, salt, sugar, umami and chemical flavors to turn us into addicts. 

While food companies can trot willing doctors, dieticians and nutritionists who claim that eating their brand of poison in moderation can be part of a balanced diet, the companies are like drug dealers who prey on junkies. As Morgan Spurlock explained about McDonald's in Supersize Me, the targets are "heavy users," who visit the Golden Arches at least once a week and "super heavy users,” who visit ten times a month or more. In fact, according to one study, super heavy users "make up approximately 75 percent of McDonald's sales."

Fast-food Addiction

Perhaps no company better exemplifies the intersection of factory farming, fast food and food addiction than McDonald's. It pioneered many of the practices of standardized, industrial food production that made it into a global behemoth. In 1966 McDonald's switched from about 175 different suppliers for fresh potatoes to J.R. Simplot Company’s frozen French fry. A few years later, McDonald's switched from a similar number of beef suppliers to just five. Within a decade, notes Eric Schlosser, McDonald's had gone from 725 outlets nationwide to more than 3,000. 

Tyson did the same with chicken, which was seen as a healthy alternative to red meat. It teamed up with McDonald's to launch the Chicken McNugget nationwide in 1983. Within one month McDonald's became the number two chicken buyer in the country, behind KFC. The McNugget also transformed chicken processing. Today, Tyson makes most of its money from processed chicken, selling its products to 90 of the 100 largest restaurant chains. As for the health benefits, Chicken McNuggets have twice as much fat per ounce as a hamburger.

The entire food industry, perhaps best described as "eatertainment," has refined the science of taking the cheap commodities pumped out by agribusiness and processing them into foodstuffs that are downright addictive. But food is far more than mere fuel. It is marketed as a salve for our emotional and psychological ills, as a social activity, a cultural outlet and entertainment.

Faced with little time to cook, bland industrial meat and drawn to exciting and addictive processed foods, most Americans gorge on convenience food. In 1900, the typical American woman spent six hours a day in food prep and cleanup. By last year, Americans on average took 31 minutes a day. For many, "cooking time" consists of opening up takeout containers, dumping the contents on a plate and throwing away the trash.

To get us in the door (or to pick up their product at the supermarket), food companies stoke our gustatory senses. The food has to be visually appealing, have the right feel, texture and smell. And most of all, it has to taste good. To that end, writes David Kessler in The End of Overeating, the food industry has honed in on the "three points of the compass" -- fat, salt and sugar.

One anonymous food-industry executive told Kessler, "Higher sugar, fat and salt make you want to eat more." The executive admitted food is designed to be "highly hedonic," and that the food industry is "the manipulator of the consumers' minds and desires."

This food is even designed to be pre-digested. Factory-farmed meats are ground up, injected with salt, water, a multitude of flavorings and chemicals, reconstituted and often processed with extra fat (like the McNugget). Speaking to an expert in "sensory stimulation and food," Kessler explains how food is engineered to deliver pleasing flavors, aromatic and textural sensations and dissolve easily in the mouth. He writes: "in the past Americans typically chewed a mouthful of food 25 times before it was ready to be swallowed; now the average American chews only ten times." Even the bolus -- the wad of chewed food -- is designed to be smooth and even. It's "adult baby food."

Referencing studies with either humans or lab animals, Kessler shows how varying concentrations and combinations of fat and sugar intensify neurochemicals, much the same way cocaine does. One professor of psychiatry explains that people self-administer food in search of "different stimulating and sedating effects," just as is done with a "speedball" -- which combines cocaine and heroin.

Kessler deconstructs numerous restaurant chain foods to show they are nothing more than layers of fat, salt and sugar. A reoccurring item is "bacon-cheese fries," a coronary event on a plate that displays dazzling engineering precision. One food consultant calls it "cheap filler" in which "20 cents' worth of product gets me $5 worth of wow." The expert in sensory stimulation explains, "Adding more fat gives me more flavor. It gives me more salt. And that bacon gives me a lot more lubricity." A food scientist for Frito-Lay describes the textural appeal: "You've got some pieces that are crispy on the outside, soft on the inside. It's warm. It's probably gooey, stringy, so you have to use your fingers a lot to eat it, and you have to lick your fingers. It's all multisensory."

Or take the McGriddle, which can be deconstructed along the "three points of the compass." It starts with a "cake" made of refined wheat flour, essentially a sugar, pumped with vegetable shortening, three kinds of sugar and salt. This cradles an egg, cheese and bacon topped by another cake. Thus, the McGriddle, from the bottom up, is fat, salt, sugar, fat, then fat and salt in the cheese, fat and salt in the bacon, finished off with fat, salt and sugar. And this doesn't indicate how highly processed the sandwich is. McDonald's bacon, a presumably simple product, lists 18 separate ingredients, including what appears to be six separate sources of umami.

The success of the McGriddle and sandwiches like Wendy's Baconator, which mounds six strips of bacon atop a half-pound cheeseburger and sold 25 million in its first eight weeks, has inspired an arms-race-like escalation among chain restaurants. Burger King has a near-identical imitation with the French Toast Sandwich. In 2004 Hardee's went thermonuclear with its 1,420-calorie, 107-grams-of-fat-laden "Monster Thickburger." And people are gobbling them up.

Perhaps you feel smug (and nauseated) by all this because you are a vegetarian, a vegan or a locavore, or you only eat organic and artisanal foods. Don't. Americans are under the thrall of the food industry. More than half the population eats fast food at least once a week; 92 percent eat fast food every month; and "Every month about 90 percent of American children between the ages of three and nine visit a McDonald's," states Schlosser.

We know this food is killing us slowly with diabetes, heart disease and cancer. But we can't stop because we are addicts, and the food industry is the pusher. Even if can completely opt out (which is almost impossible), it's still our land that is being ravaged, our water and air that is being poisoned, our dollars that are subsidizing the destruction, our public health that is at risk from bacterial and viral plagues.

Changing our perilous food system means making choices -- not to shop for a greener planet, but to collectively dismantle the nexus of factory farming, food corporations and the political system that enables them. It's a tall order, but it's the only option left on the menu.

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