A new book by Michael Moss looks at the ways food companies manipulate consumers’ eating habits.
Hooked: Food, Free Will, and How the Food Giants Exploit Our Addictions explores the science behind food cravings, how companies are responding to calls for healthier options, and ways that consumers can break free from their addiction to food.
“I thought willpower was a big issue out there, until I did the research,” Moss tells Food Tank. Instead, he finds that a consumer’s ability to control their eating habits is heavily influenced by the chemical pathways that processed foods activate, which hook consumers.
Although the public has become increasingly concerned about the quality of these snacks and other packaged foods, companies have become adept at responding to consumers’ demands without sacrificing sales.
In the mid 2010s, Moss says, a growing number of consumers began calling for healthier options, which translated to a drop in sales for large food companies. These companies responded by engaging in what Moss calls “health-washing” as they cut back on salt, sugar, and fat and added ingredients like protein and fiber. As a result, it has become more challenging to discern healthy options from unhealthy ones.
And while many food experts and eaters hoped the COVID-19 pandemic would act as an opportunity to adopt better eating habits, Moss finds that the opposite has occurred.
“We thought that was going to be a chance where we could at least get rid of the vending machines in our lives and get through that 3:00PM afternoon craving,” Moss tells Food Tank. “Because of the stress of the moment and the fear, we were drawn to junky products we haven’t had since we were kids.” As a result, food companies saw sales shoot up.
But Moss believes that it is now more important than ever to break some of these habits. As the pandemic has shown, those who are obese or managing diet-related illnesses including hypertension and diabetes are at an increased risk of developing severe cases of COVID-19. “It’s hard, but now’s the time to do it,” Moss says.
Through Hooked, Moss hopes to show that the science of addiction can help inform individual’s tactics to avoid unhealthy foods. In some cases, anticipating and circumventing the craving through support from a friend or ensuring nutritious snacks are readily available can prove effective.
For these shifts to take place on a large scale, however, Moss suggests it will take a combination of solutions, including education, legislation and nudge marketing. These can help consumers learn about healthy foods from a young age, ensure that they can access it, and help them choose fresh food over processed options.
Information is also key. “Knowledge is power,” Moss tells Food Tank. “If only we can get into the hands of people all the ways that food companies try to manipulate them and control their eating habits.”
Watch the full interview with Michael Moss below: