Manipulation on the menu: How food companies may be influencing your diet
TORONTO -- If you have ever gone to the grocery store and found yourself lost in the dozens of different kinds of breakfast cereals lining the shelves, you’re not alone.
American author Michael Moss told CTV News Channel that this is an intentional move, among others, done by food companies to exploit human instinct and get people hooked on processed foods.
In his new book, "Hooked: Food, Free Will, and How the Food Giants Exploit Our Addictions," Moss explains that food companies can manipulate consumers' eating habits by increasing variety, leaving ingredients off labels, adding chemicals to reduce product cost, and packing products will empty calories.
He said in an interview on Wednesday that the human brain "gets excited" when it sees variety or inexpensive food at the grocery store, which increases the chances of purchasing the product.
"They have chemical labs reformulating their ingredients to bring the cost down. Even 10 cents excites the brain. They know we get really excited about variety, so that's why you walk into a cereal aisle and there's 200 varieties," Moss said.
Moss says the ingredients and marketing around processed foods may even make the products more addictive than drugs or alcohol in some cases.
"After researching this industry and crawling back into the underbelly, I'm now convinced that many of these ultra-processed food products are even more problematic than some drugs. because they're tapping into our basic instincts to get us not to just like their products, but to make over-eating an everyday thing," Moss said.
Moss said companies are aware of this – so much so that some employees won’t even eat their own products. He explained that he previously met the former chief lawyer of Philip Morris, which produces cigarettes and Oreo cookies.
"He could have one cigarette a day and put his pack away and not lose control; he wouldn't go near a bag of Oreo cookies for fear of opening them up and eating half of the bag," Moss said.
"That's how powerful these products can be," he added.
Moss said cravings for junk food have worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic. Amid the initial uncertainty around the virus and strict lockdown measures, Moss says people were searching for comfort and turned to food.
"The power of memory is so critical to the sales of the food companies that when we went shopping during the pandemic, we started buying things we hadn't had since we were kids," he said.
While people could no longer hit up their office break room for a snack, Moss says families inadvertently turned their kitchen cabinets into vending machines.
"We remembered those products and we were looking for comfort. We were in the moment of stress and the memory said, 'Ah, let's try some of that food that I had four years ago'," he explained.
Moss said he hopes his new book will help show the science behind addiction and help inform individual’s food choices. He says education around food choices and ensuring access to healthy foods can also help address this.
"If you had suggested to me five years ago that Oreo cookies could be like heroin, I would have thought, 'You're nuts'," Moss said.
"[But] this is all happening in the brain, and your gut, and your whole body," he added.