The engineering of junk food addiction

We human beings are conditioned through natural selection to desire sugar, salt and fat.   They were scarce for our hunter-gatherer ancestors, who ate them every chance they got.  So it is no wonder that we like sweet, salty and greasy junk foods, and that food processors and fast-food restaurants make a lot of money selling them.  Since we Americans are no longer hunter-gatherers, our craving for junk food has many of us unhealthy and obese.

Recently a New York Times reporter named Michael Mann discovered there is more going on than that.  He found, through interviews and a search of court documents, that food processors are able to engineer their products to contain the exact amount of sugar, salt and fat that will maximize the human appetite for more—much as the tobacco companies were able to engineer nicotine to contain the exact amount that would maximize the craving for more cigarettes and cigars.

This is a drawback of competition and free enterprise.  So long as corporate profits depend on producing excellent goods and services at a reasonable price, the free market works for the benefit of the public in a way that no planned system could.  But when profits are increased by doing something that is harmful, any company that holds bag risks falling behind and being crowded out.

We as individuals have the power to refrain from addiction to an unhealthy diet.  I am glad the Food and Drug Administration requires packaged foods to be labeled as to their fat content, and their ingredients.  I have only become concerned about a healthy diet fairly late in life, but I now look carefully at what I buy.  I don’t know what I would do without this information.

Click on The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food for Michael Mann’s article in the New York Times Magazine.

Click on How the government subsidizes obesity for an earlier post of mine on how the federal government’s grain subsidies make junk food cheaper than healthy food.

Click on The Acceleration of Addictiveness for an article by venture capitalist Paul Graham on the synergy between addictiveness and free enterprise.

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