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There are so many flavors of potato chips; 'Hooked' looks at why

Hooked: Food, Free Will, and How the Food Giants Exploit Our Addictions, by Michael Moss
Hooked: Food, Free Will, and How the Food Giants Exploit Our Addictions, by Michael Moss
Random House

Around the corner from where I live in small-town Virginia is a Kroger's grocery store. According to its website, the store sells 20 flavors of Lay's potato chips: classic, wavy, wavy ranch, baked, barbecue, sour cream and onion, salt and vinegar, lightly salted, cheddar and sour cream, limon-flavored, honey barbecue, sweet southern heat, dill pickle, flamin' hot, flamin' hot and dill pickle, cheddar jalapeno, jalapeno ranch, lime and jalapeno, kettle-cooked, and kettle-cooked mesquite barbecue.

In “Hooked: Food, Free Will, and How the Food Giants Exploit Our Addictions,” investigative reporter Michael Moss explains why a major food corporation — Lay's is owned by PepsiCo — would produce such an over-the-top number of versions of potato chips. We are prone to what food scientists called sensory-specific satiety, feeling full when we take in a lot of the same taste, smell, or flavor. Changing a food item even just a little, from barbecue to honey barbecue, let's say, makes for novelty that lights up our brain.

Eons ago in prehistory, our ancestors survived more readily when they selected varied foods, with varied nutrients, as they gathered or hunted. That evolved tendency "makes it difficult for us to say no when we're presented with food that's even just slightly different from what we just ate," as Moss writes.

Moss explores, through the lens of addiction, the relentless striving of Big Food corporations to hook us on highly processed foods. These are foods loaded with sugar, salt, fat, and preservatives. (Moss' book “Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us” was published in 2013.)

Addiction is a spectrum, Moss says. Not every person with substance abuse disorder experiences tolerance — which is the need for more and more of the substance to feel its effects — or intense withdrawal symptoms. Some people, scientists have learned, are affected only mildly. The early part of the book is helpful for reframing addiction in this way but, even so, does it make sense to talk about addiction to processed foods as one would about addition to tobacco or heroin?

Moss says yes.

Repetitive behavior that's difficult to quit and that causes harm — the most accurate definition of addiction — accurately describes what many of us experience when it comes to highly processed foods. In the U.S., the turn towards overeating these foods occurred in the early 1980s, and the subsequent rise in conditions like hypertension, heart disease, cancer and diabetes is linked to it.

A theme for Moss is that the food giant companies consciously exploit our evolved biology, as I mentioned in the example about the potato chips and sensory-specific satiety. Consider the route that different foods take to excite the brain. With tobacco and drugs, the substance must enter the bloodstream in order to reach the brain. But this isn't the case for a bite of chocolate cake or cheese pizza. The sugar in the cake goes from the taste buds to the brain directly, and the fat zips there through the trigeminal nerve — in both instances incredibly fast. Experiments show that "the faster something reaches the brain, the greater the brain's response," Moss writes. Foods that contain both sugar and fat produce a double hit to the brain and thus a double arousal, and food companies know this.

The Big Food companies, Moss explains, are all about publicity and profit even when the dangers to consumers' health is evident. In 2010, First Lady Michelle Obama called out the food giants for all the substances they add to foods that harm children's health and contribute to kids' obesity. In response, manufacturers like Coca-Cola, Kellogg's, Kraft and PepsiCo, through the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation they had established the previous year, promised to cut calories from their products.

In fact, this consortium of companies exceeded their initial goal and reached a reduction of 6.4 trillion calories by 2012. A scientific review, however, showed that this reduction works out to a savings of only 78 calories per day per person, Moss notes. And of course it can't be known how many consumers really did eat less as a result of this project. Much of the calorie reduction, it turns out, came from smaller package or portion sizes. Unfortunately, "the biggest reduction, more than 14 percent of the industry's 6.4 trillion calories, came from lower sales of fresh and frozen vegetables," Moss writes.

Occasionally, Moss runs into trouble when reporting beyond the realm of food science. He is fascinated with one species in the human lineage called Ardi, short for Ardipithecus ramidus, discovered by paleoanthropologists in Ethiopia in 1994 and dated to around 4.4 million years ago. Moss describes Ardi as the first biped, or species in our lineage to walk upright (which is not fully clear). His focus on a single species and its physiology as related to food-getting behavior offers a strangely limited picture of our past. Worse, when he refers to Ardi's "decision to stand up and walk upright," he misleads readers about how evolution works. It's not as if Ardi and her kind discussed the matter and made a conscious choice for bipedalism.

Overall, though, “Hooked” is smoothly written, with just the right amount of fascinating scientific detail. Moss describes ingenious experiments where people enter brain scanners with squares of chocolate already in their mouth, so that researchers can assess effects on the brain as the sweet treat melts on the tongue. He recounts food experiments with animals, that he calls "poignant" (and I'd call "inhumane") such as when rats are crammed full of sugar-laden foods or forced to endure tubes invading their bodies.

The big food corporations go to "great lengths to maintain the belief that our disordered eating is on us, through our lack of self-control," Moss writes. Convincingly, Moss points the finger right back at the corporate manipulation and deception that's meant to amp up our addiction to processed foods. I won't be buying potato chips anytime soon.

Barbara J. King is a biological anthropologist emerita at William & Mary. Her seventh book, Animals' “Best Friends: Putting Compassion to Work for Animals in Captivity and in the Wild,” will be published in March. Find her on Twitter @bjkingape.

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