great taste is always in season

Grace Cuisine

Winning the Junk Food War


Recently I had an experience I am sure many will find very familiar.  One evening I hosted a little get-together in my home to celebrate a friend's recent promotion at work.  Like all such friendly gatherings, I wanted it to be a fun, relaxing experience.  Food, of course, would play a vital role.  Considering my guests, I put together a large variety of delightful "finger foods" - Bite-sized sandwiches, veggies and dips, cheese and crackers, nuts and lots and lots of what I somewhat euphemistically call "snack foods".  But let's face it, we know what I really served.  Junk food!  Potato chips, Doritos, Cheetos, Oreos, Chips Ahoy cookies and the list goes on.  I normally never allow such things in my home, and for very good reasons.  

But what's the problem?  I am an adult, with self-direction, control, and free will, right?  I'm not stupid and not childish.  Right, that's what I thought too.  But by the end of that evening, I felt physically rotten and had probably gained a pound or two of body weight.  While I enjoyed having my friends over, my self-esteem took a bit of a hit having realized (once again) that these "snack foods" had got the better of me, despite my determination, understanding and resolution.   And you know what?  It isn't entirely my fault.  

Do you ever wonder why some foods have that unique ability to make you lose track, lose control, lose concern, and always eat more than you ought?  Well, believe it or not, it's no accident.  There is a real science to why certain foods have this affect and other foods, which we may very much like and enjoy, do not.  To understand this, and get the bottom of the problem that I, and so many, have with these foods, we need to consider how certain foods "work" with our bodies, and how food manufacturers capitalize on this phenomena.  

We eat to survive, obviously.  Our bodies need a combination of protein, fat, and carbohydrates to operate efficiently.  Further, we need fiber and a large variety of vitamins and minerals.  A significant lack in one of these can create cravings that are sometimes hard to resist.  This is nature's way of driving us to do what our bodies need, and underscores that there is a chemistry and a science behind eating.  To make sure we eat, again, nature has made food pleasurable and all creatures have evolved to enjoy certain foods. Though personal tastes vary, in general, we like complexity and intensity in the flavors and experiences we are designed by nature to enjoy in food, and our senses reward us with endorphins when we experience the right combinations and right potency of experience.  

We respond to sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami, the main tastes we can experience, but there is much more to it.  The sight, sound, smell and texture all play huge roles.  The initial taste in the mouth, how the flavor develops as we chew and  the aroma released all combine to create complexity of experience.  Add to this components like crunchiness, or chewiness, or creaminess, and when you get just the right balance of flavors and complexity of sensory experience, you are rewarded - you have that "mmmmm, yummy!" experience of pleasure.  

Knowing this, there are things food manufacturers can do to food to hit all the right notes.  For example, coating the surface of a food, such as a chip, with a combination of flavors that are most instantly registered, such as salt or msg, then mixing in other flavors that will develop as you chew, such as fat and yet more salt, and giving it a definite crunch that then becomes the right consistency of tastes and textures in the mouth, is a trigger for a lot of people.  Combining fat and sweet in a crunch and creamy combination is another complex experience that many cannot resist.  Adding artificial scent factors further enhances the experience.

We all know this on some level - that these foods are designed to please and to sell.  So what's the problem with such tactics?  Well, much of this food manipulation has an agenda that really isn't so benign - or at least the ultimate effects are not benign.  Unlike more natural foods, junk foods that are carefully concocted in this way are meant to make you eat more, and more, and more.  And to create cravings based on that pleasurable experience.  This is very different from craving an orange because you need some vitamin C, or feeling satisfied after a balanced and pleasant meal.  It is much more like a compulsion - and a compulsion that isn't just about getting nourishment and nutrients. 

Food manufacturers know these effects well and are forever working to perfect the magic formulas.  They know all the tricks and combinations very well, and have teams of food developers working always to create just the right formula that will hit all the right buttons.  There are "food scientists" who study the affects food has on the brain and body chemistry, and have documented the reactions and responses that lead to the cravings and extreme responses junk food can trigger.  Did you know that there are even studies done to get just the right crinkly sound to the bag that holds your chips, since studies show this even can persuade you in the experience?  Or that foods are tested over and over, with teams of scientists and professional food "tasters", working to always refine the product  - adding fat, salt, sugar and altering every aspect such as color, surface textures and aromas in just the right amounts to create the complexity of our most basic food desires that don't appear naturally in food.  The goal?  To really get you hooked.  And that is the problem.  

Such foods are not created with any concern for nutritional value.  Often these foods are really unhealthy.  But that, in itself, isn't the real issue.  The most serious problem is that these foods are designed to make you want more and more.  They are designed to not fill you up, though they are calorically dense, so you will keep eating them.  They are designed to make you crave and create a profound enough response that you will struggle to maintain moderation, that you will throw caution to the wind. They are meant to create a profound physical, psychological and emotional response that will overwhelm your sense of moderation and control.  There is nothing wrong with the elements of foods that create pleasure.  There's a reason for that - an evolutionary, biological reason.  But nature isn't forever working to create foods that trigger the most extreme responses, that are excessively fatty, sugary, salty, etc.  That is the realm of man - and specifically the realm of junk food manufacturers and their marketing teams.

For some people, it's not a big deal.  They can control their desires for such foods, and can have such items as a treat or forego them altogether.  But for many people that is not the case at all.  They can't easily control these cravings and the effect is almost like a drug.  They can't have just a little.  In fact, studies of both animals and humans have shown that food can trigger the same pattern of response and reaction that is seen in drug addiction.  There are even eating disorders such as binge eating in which one literally cannot control the behavior and usually needs medical and psychological intervention to gain control.  Obviously those are extreme examples, but the fact is that for many people, to some degree, food can exert a control and create a response that is not easily controlled, and that is highly detrimental.  It isn't fresh vegetables and fruit or low fat proteins creating the problem.  It is most often the food we class as "junk" - the food designed to trigger such responses.  

And food marketing counts on this.  In fact, there was a brand of potato chips with a marketing campaign  boasting the fact that no one can "eat just one" and challenged you to test whether you could eat a single chip.  This brazen, almost shameless boast was not a boast.  For most people it is a fact, a fact the manufacturers are counting on and the marketing teams have even come to use as a marketing tool.  You'd think that fact - the scary idea that you literally cannot control yourself, that you cannot have a limited amount -  would be off-putting.  Well, not if we make it funny and cute and a challenge in the television and print advertisements.  Thus the jingle and cartoon characters, or the happy, attractive, physically fit actors all singing and dancing and enthusing about chips, or cookies or candy bars.  

For many, the feelings of guilt or fear or regret that such foods inspire is the only defense against the pull they can have on us.  Marketing plays a big role in creating the moods and thinking behind the emotional and mental framework for accepting junk food in our daily lives.  Marketing strives to normalize a relationship to these foods that is really anything but normal - a relationship that, for many, is almost like an addiction, or like using a drug.  You never see a massive campaign to promote apples, or carrots, or grapes.  But the cookies, potato chips, snack crackers, and candy bars that fall into the junk food category have millions of dollars and teams of marketers behind them to push you to try it, to accept it, to think of it as fun, as a treat, as totally normal.  Everyone knows they should not be eating such things, even those who love these foods and crave them.  So it isn't enough to scientifically design an addictive junk food.  You also need to "push it" through marketing, to overcome the defenses.  And the marketing component does just that.  

These foods have a very long shelf life, and the ingredients are relatively inexpensive when compared to fresh food, so their popularity has a lot of  benefit for the manufacturers.  So we have nutritionally deficient foods, high in fat, calories, sugar and salt, designed to hit all the various aspects of pleasure in the most intense way.  None of these are good for you, and you know it.  Yet every year billions of dollars are spent on these foods, while obesity, diabetes and heart disease continue to be near epidemics.  

This is not some doom and gloom conspiracy theory about our evil enemy.  It is the nature of mankind to want to make a profit and have success.  Food manufacturers are simply taking advantage of an obvious and easy path to such goals.  So it isn't about moralizing or condemning such companies, and many would object to the idea of regulating or controlling, in preference of freedom of choice and commerce.  But where then does this leave those for whom such foods and their lure is a true problem?  This is why we need to really understand what is going on with these foods, so that those of us who are most vulnerable, who try though we might, will always fail when facing the challenge of moderation regarding junk food, can formulate a strategy.   

What is that strategy?  Well, knowledge really is power.  Perhaps just knowing you are being tricked can help you resist the lure.  Perhaps we can view those happy, innocuous ads with a more dubious eye.  But aside from that, the key for many is simply not to participate.  Anyone who has ever gone on a healthy diet, and cut out junk from their diet can attest to the fact that the cravings do fade.  In fact, for many people after changing their diet, such "treats" seem overwhelming when they try them again - too salty, too sweet, too rich.  

For those, like me, for whom such foods really are a serious problem, it's important to understand that it's not your fault.  It isn't about your will power.  There has been a lot of effort and energy and science and marketing aimed at overcoming that will power, at hitting your most basic and primal physical and psychological buttons to make you lose control.  You can't win this game.  So don't play it.  For many, cold turkey really is the only answer.  Just as an alcoholic cannot decide one day just to drink in moderation, so those of us who are vulnerable to losing control regarding junk food need to make sure we don't have it in our lives.  Turn the trick back on them - if you can't eat just one, then don't eat any.  

It is easier said than done, and we live in a world of temptations and pressures.  But in the end, we do have choices.  If you don't face issues with these foods, and feel you can control your intake, that is great.  But for many,  knowing your limits, and knowing what is happening can empower you to protect yourself from the carefully created pitfalls that can turn one of the great pleasures of life, eating, into one of its biggest problems.

By Jeanette at Grace. 


By: John
On: 08/30/2015 15:34:32
As one of those who are totally dominated by junk food let me be the first to say hurray to this article. Ok yeah it's not the "evil enemy" but I do question junk food creators. Even giving it up totally I have to be vigilant. I so quickly and easily get hooked. Thanks for the article and insight into the behind the scenes.
By: Catherine Jenkins
On: 08/30/2015 15:57:37
This article really hits a nerve for me. I agree, we can't condemn the manufacturers, and have to be responsible, but a lifetime of up and down on the scales, and struggle and unhappiness, solely because of junk food has made me a little bitter. I do manage to resist it, but it has been a long, hard battle. The frustrating thing is that SO often it is the go-to food at about any event. Like it's equated with fun, and like the consequences aren't serious. But for a LOT of people it is really serious, and isn't fun at all. The old "moment on the lips, lifetime on the hips" is true, but I am more concerned about the lifetime of extra work for my heart, cholesterol in my veins, etc. I think in addition to being aware as individuals, it would be good if people in general were aware - and don't push it on others. that sounds a little nasty, but it is true. So often I am at some office party and the stuff is everywhere, with few if any healthy or at least not awful options, and I ignore it only to have happy party goers encourage me. They'd not do it with alcohol if I had a problem. anyway, I don't mean to gripe - and I really appreciate the article, and agree. Just wish as a society and culture we'd tune in to the seriousness and not make it just individuals struggling on their own to resist.
By: Eric
On: 08/30/2015 16:03:51
I think this is a good story. my mom says this a lot too and she won't let me have junk food very much. I can have potato chips or pretzels on saturday when we watch tv. I eat a lot of apples and also i like carrots too especialy when they are the baby carrots and that is good caus they are crunchy but they dont have bad things about them. so also that is something people can do that will help them when they dont want to eat chips.
By: Jenny
On: 08/30/2015 16:59:02
Wow it's so true. I gave up junk for years. I was almost religious about it. Then I was at a summer outdoor wedding. I resisted as much as I could but ended up having potato chips and chocolate chip cookies. Oksy a one time bump in the road right? Nope! The next day I ended up buying a bag of chips. I didn't get fat the day before so what harm can a bag do and I deserve a treat. Clearly it's a treat. It's part of all celebrations. Long story short it took over a year to lose the forty pounds I gained in the next five months. Don't let it get you. Just say no. It sounds silly and cheesy but it's so true. We get one go around here in this life. It's tragic that garbage food can make that life so much worse. Thanks for this expos?. We all need the knowledge and reminder I think.
By: Anna
On: 08/30/2015 17:15:41
Thank you Grace Cuisine. I knew they try to make junk food sell but didn't know theres so much work and science behind it. This article is very forging to the junk food industry. I don't want government regulation but I am not as forgiving. I think it's unethical. But it's true that We have choices. I think everyone should give this junk up though. Wouldn't it be nice to see it just disappear?! I know. Not likely. Still it would be nice!
By: Adam A
On: 08/30/2015 17:35:41
Jenny and Anna, I hear what your saying and sympathize. I get being angry. But that kind of feeling does nothing but increase the harm done to you. I don't want to get all political but I hate the idea of nanny government controlling trade and watching what we eat for us like we are kids. But that could happen and there are people who can make a strong case for that based on anger and the problems these foods cause. I really do think the better way is just to rob these food manufacturers of their power. Avoid this cr@p and you win. I liked that the essay concluded with that. And it is a war in some ways. So give peace a chance and don't engage in the stupid battle is my thinking.
By: Frank D. R.
On: 08/30/2015 18:45:21
I am sorry, but I must disagree. It is a good and informative article - but all this "we don't want government regulation" yet we hate the junk food industry and realize it is ruining lives, etc is not the right approach. Yes, I don't want government taking over my life either, and am all for freedom. But when you see an industry that has NO rules, no regulation, and that harms the poorest and most vulnerable the most - all for profit, well that is exploitation! Junk food - not just snacks, but cheap, fattening, empty calorie, dangerous to your health food - is the staple of the poor. In fact, in some countries where the issue was enough food, the issue is not severe obesity and loads of health problems due to this "innocuous treat" food. Something has to be done. These are not people who read articles, who have this information. They are heavily influenced by the culture that normalizes this. It is aimed at everyone but it harms the poor the most. I think we need some kind of intervention... I know that is a scary idea for some - and to be honest, I am not a promoter of government running lives. But this, to me, is an industry of exploitation, and does so much harm and no good.

That said, I agree with the article completely about personal choice and awareness - and for a lot of folks that is enough. It makes great points and is very thoughtful, but I just have to disagree with everyone on this one point.
By: Anna
On: 08/30/2015 18:46:55
Adam - I don't think I was angry really in my comment... But thanks for your input and I agree with you that it isn't worth letting it get to you.
By: John
On: 08/30/2015 19:12:21

@Frank - though I understand your frustration and feelings - be careful what you wish for - it is a slippery slope once the government starts regulating what we can and cannot eat. You assume that poor people don't read articles and have no information. Based on what? Just about everyone has access to the internet these days, and there has never been a more free and more complete flow of opinions, information and ideas in our culture. I think that the answer is just that - information and awareness - like this article is promoting. Perhaps you can help, we all can, by helping to change thinking. As another commenter pointed out, we can not push this stuff, not act like it's normal. And blogs like this can be shared. I disagree with the "someone has to take control and watch over us" approach, though I share your concerns.
By: DanR
On: 09/11/2015 07:10:02
Interesting article. Thanks.

Leave a comment

Please complete the form below to submit a comment on this article. A valid email address is required to submit a comment though it will not be displayed on the site.

HTML has been disabled but if you wish to add any hyperlinks or text formatting you can use any of the following codes: [B]bold text[/B], [I]italic text[/I], [U]underlined text[/U], [S]strike through text[/S], [URL][/URL], [URL=http//]your text[/URL]