When it comes to what we eat, most people seem to take it for granted that we can choose to be better: Buying more fresh produce, sticking to a new diet, simply eating less. But in his new book Hooked, Pulitzer-winning author Michael Moss looked at Big Food through the lens of addiction science and asked: what if we don’t actually have much free will when it comes to what we eat? The food industry has invested for decades in making its product literally irresistible, and Moss ultimately argues, convincingly, that there’s not as big of a difference between junk food and drugs as you might think.
Hooked: Food, Free Will, and How the Food Giants Exploit Our Addictions
Food addiction is a scary prospect—if your free will is being exploited, how can you even begin to help yourself? So GQ asked Moss what we could do, and he went deep: on the long connection between Big Food and Big Tobacco, the shady origins of nutrition facts, and how understanding the marketing tricks might help you make healthier choices.
GQ: How exactly do you define addiction in this book? Can you really be addicted to food?
Michael Moss: In my last book, Salt Sugar Fat, I tried to end on this hopeful note: that ultimately it’s up to us to decide what to eat and how much. Then almost immediately, a reporter got in my face with the question, “Michael, how can you say this? Isn’t this stuff you’re writing about addictive like drugs?” And I’m back-pedaling, hemming and hawing, because I tried to avoid the “A” word, not just because the industry hates that word more than anything, but because it seemed too harsh for food. It really threw me. Can these foods in fact be thought of as being not just a very, very bad habit, but addictive in the ways that other substances are? And are there lessons to be drawn from the world of addiction that could apply to food?
I knew that I had to go right at that question of addiction, so I spent some time looking at the evolution of the definition of the word. I was surprised to learn that it’s actually not a technical word that doctors use. They prefer talking about substance dependence and things like that, and the extent to which they did deal with the word addiction and tried to define it has changed over the years, as our knowledge about other addictive substances has changed. There used to be all these criteria for drug addiction—you had to have painful withdrawal symptoms, or you had to have a tolerance. As we learned more about drugs, many of those criteria fell by the wayside, and so you’re left with a more general definition of addiction.
I went back through the Philip Morris records. The company had vehemently denied that smoking was addictive for decades and decades, and then it just totally flipped in the year 2000. I thought that was so fascinating. What did its scientists do when they suddenly had to start conceding that smoking was addictive? I came across some incredible memos where they’re wrestling with that. The CEO of Philip Morris at the time was asked to define addiction, and he came up with a perfect definition, which is, “a repetitive behavior that some people find difficult to quit.”
It was great for me, because at the time Philip Morris was also the largest manufacturer of processed food, and that definition certainly seemed to fit many of their biggest icons in the grocery store.
What was the most shocking thing you found in those Philip Morris records?
In terms of addiction, it was their struggle to concede that something they had vehemently denied was addictive was in fact addictive. What was most shocking, though, was not in the documents, but when I sat down with the former top lawyer for Philip Morris, Steve Parrish. We were just kind of chatting about smoking and his smoking habits, and he said, “Look, I’m one of those people who could take out my pack of cigarettes and have a cigarette during a business meeting, and put it away, and have no compulsion to look at or take it out again until the next day.” But he goes, and my jaw’s dropping, “But I couldn’t go anywhere near our Oreo cookies, for fear of losing control, because I would eat half the bag.” And so to me, I think one of the most surprising, shocking things is how many insiders don’t touch their own products. Either because they know the health implications of that or because they know that they will lose control.
How does food addiction compare to addiction to heroin or cigarettes or anything like that? How is it different?
I went from thinking it was ridiculous to compare Twinkies to heroin to thinking that actually, in some ways, food is even more powerful than drugs. One of those ways is memory. We begin developing memories for food at an incredible early age, possibly even in the womb. And those memories remain incredibly powerful to us, and remain with us for the rest of our lives, whereas drug addiction tends to get us in our teens and last through the mid to late 20s. Those are powerful memories, but they’re generally limited to that time frame. So memory, I think, in food is more powerful.
The food environment generally is more powerful than drugs. For somebody who has trouble dealing with sugar, every time you go shopping is like an alcoholic walking into a bar. Also, you can’t abstain from food. So in that sense, I think food is more difficult. And then talking to these scientists who used to study drugs and now study food, they’ve pressed upon me how one of the hallmarks of addiction is speed. The faster a substance hits the brain, the more excited the brain gets and the more apt you are to act impulsively on that substance. It turns out there’s nothing faster in hitting the brain than food.
To what extent is the food industry aware of all this and taking advantage of it?
Part of me still resists seeing this as this evil empire that intentionally set out to make us sick on their products. These are companies doing what all companies want to do, which is to make as much money as possible by selling as much product as possible. But I have to say that when you look at their effort in all of their waking hours to maximize the allure of their products, it’s a really fine line between making something that gets people excited and wanting more, and making them addicted so that they’re completely losing free will in the matter.
But I think that over the years these companies have gained an understanding that they may have crossed that line. I’ll give you this crazy example I ran across recently. The current owner of Nabisco put out a video where they have a nutritionist come in to help us engage in what they call mindful snacking, as an antidote to mindless snacking, which is kind of what their products are all about. And so she goes though these steps that you can take to gain control over your eating habits. The last step is just so beautiful. She’s got a dinner plate and she puts three Oreo cookies on it. And she says, “Try to pick up just one cookie,” don’t stuff your whole mouth with them, “and take just a bite of the one cookie, and then before you gobble it up, put it back on the plate, and try to sort of control yourself.” It was such a revelation though, because here is a company making one of the biggest icons in the grocery store, that’s obviously speaking with insider knowledge to this problem, which is that for so many of us, their product is so perfectly engineered that we lose all willpower. I think that’s an example of where big companies truly know how powerful their products are.
And then, in the back part of the book I write about how they’re exploiting our efforts to regain control by buying up those diets, the diet companies, by pushing protein and fiber, and even researching our genetic structure to find some ways of tweaking our epidemiology. I think those are all examples of insider knowledge of the power of these products that they’ve created.
You mentioned earlier that Philip Morris had to make a complete 180 and admit that their product was addictive. Do you anticipate that there will be a similar reversal in food, where companies will have to acknowledge that their foods are, if not bad for you, at least semi-addictive?
The strange thing with food, and one of the things the companies have going for them, is that, despite all we know about the junkiest food in the grocery store, we still tend to look at it as being these cute, innocent, fun little things. Some of that’s because they’ve marketed those products to us for the last 50 years with cartoon characters, and to children watching Saturday morning cartoons, and just sort of inculcating our brains with that image of these foods, and I think that’s been one of the reasons why no tort attorneys have gone after food like tobacco, because it’s just weird to think about food as being as evil as tobacco. Right? It only becomes problematic when you overdo it on these food products.
I think they’ve even played with the word addiction. In the cereal aisle the other today [I saw a] cereal called Krave. It’s like in some ways they’ve been not running from addiction, but embracing it as a marketing strategy, knowing that we think of their products as being cute, even if we find ourselves eating the entire bag in one sitting.
When the food industry sponsors so much research into what’s healthy to eat, how can someone figure out what’s actually good for them?
The first advice would be really careful with anything on the front label of the package. That’s the prime territory where the food companies try to allay our concerns about what’s in their products. When you see things like “added calcium” and “less sugar” and “more protein” or “extra fiber” on the front of the package label, those are advertising pitches that deserve closer attention.
Much of what’s going on now in the grocery store is what I like to call health-washing, which is making it harder to tell the good stuff in the store from the bad stuff because the companies are reformulating to cut back on the bad ingredients a little bit, add some good ingredients, and try to get past our growing alarm about the nature of their food. Be very skeptical of claims like natural or even organic, mind you, because the junkiest food in the store can be organic. It only refers to the farming methodology that uses somewhat less amounts of pesticides than the non-organic, and it can be totally loaded with lots of bad stuff. It’s just as bad for you nutrition-wise. So that’d be the first advice, be really skeptical.
If people have a real eating disorder, they can’t touch a grain of sugar without losing control, and there are many, many people like that, abstinence is the only way you can kind of deal with that. You just have to cut that out of your diet. But for the rest of us, I think one of the coolest concepts is finding ways to change how we value food, and reconsider. You walk in the Starbucks and you got your coffee and you’re standing in front of the pastry counter. The industry has been telling us for the last 50 years it’s all about yumminess, instant gratification, buzz to the brain. And I love people who are working on ways to help us think more long-term about the consequences of having that scone.
Then I guess the last tip that I got from looking at the world of addiction is that cravings happen so hard and so fast in eliminating our free will and our willpower that you have to get ahead of them. So if your trouble with food is something like the 3:00 PM craving for cookies, the lesson from the world of drugs is that, no matter what your strategy is, whether it’s to get up and stretch or call a friend or eat something healthier, you pretty much need to be executing that at 2:55, before the 3:00 craving comes on, or your biology isn’t going to allow you to say no.
Abstention, plan ahead for those most vulnerable moments, and then see if you can kind of change the underlying values, and how you look at these substances, and why you’re using them.
You’ve talked a little bit today about just the omnipresence of food advertising in our environment from basically the moment we’re born. Is there anything we can do about that?
I think I again would come back to this notion of finding ways to rethink what we value in food. I mean look, I walk in the grocery store now and I just start laughing at all the tricks that companies play, because I get it. I see what they’re doing.
Like what? What makes you laugh the hardest?
Kind of when the door opens up and I hear that soft Muzak music coming out, trying to put me at ease. That’s pretty funny. The bright colors in the 90% center part of the store, the design to get the brain really excited. I laugh when I walk in the cereal aisle, because the companies have done studies where they’ve put devices on people’s heads to analyze their eye movements, and they know that when we step into an aisle our attention immediately goes to the middle part of the aisle at eye level. So that’s where they’ll put the most sugary cereals, and I laugh when I look down at the bottom shelf at the end of the aisle and see the plain oatmeal sitting there all by its lonely self.
Now I even laugh at the nutrition facts box on these packages. Until this book, I thought that fine print on the back of the package was our best friend. It told us how many calories and protein were in the thing, but then I discovered that that nutrition facts box was actually a creation of none other than the processed food industry as a way of placating us. And I think that’s in some weird way one of the most sinister aspects of the processed food industry now—that they know we will become less concerned about their products seeing this jumble of data on the package, right?
Yeah. So the facts box, it came out the 1960s. At the time Ralph Nader was going crazy about food. He was really concerned about all these unknown additives that were going into products, and people were getting really scared. As a solution to the growing public fear about what was in these products, and this was before there was sort of any required listing of ingredients in products, they came up with this thing called the nutrition facts. “Let’s list everything that’s in the product, so people can be less scared of it.” But it’s a weird thing, because half of those rows of numbers and percentages is looking at things we should get more of, like calcium and protein, and then half is things we should be scared of, too many calories, and too much sugar, too much of the wrong kind of fats.
So most people—and I’ve seen the surveys, and this has been consistent over time—just really can’t understand what those numbers are all about. I can’t even understand it. What does it mean when you pick up a box of Pop Tarts and it says 140 calories? I mean, what does that really mean to your overall diet and health? I have no idea, but it placates you, because it basically says to you, “Look, the government, somebody has stepped in here, looked at this product, and they’ve analyzed everything and did all this fancy math, and so it must be okay.”
You started our conversation by talking about how this book emerged after you wrote Salt Sugar Fat, and then people harped on you for chalking too much up to personal choice. Where do you stand on that now? Because to a certain extent, it does seem like it still comes down to personal choice, that we have to manage our cravings and do the best we can.
Looking at the obesity rate having passed 43% even before the pandemic, I’m now so aware that that is not our fault. That is not a matter of a lack of personal willpower. Free will has been robbed of us by these food companies. I’m totally convinced of that, on one hand. On the other hand, I think that there’s still room to reclaim our eating habits, but we have to be smarter about it, and more clever, because of the power of these products to grab our attention.