A dangerous market feedback loop

Moskowitz’s path to mastering the bliss point began in earnest not at Harvard but a few months after graduation, 16 miles from Cambridge, in the town of Natick, where the U.S. Army hired him to work in its research labs. The military has long been in a peculiar bind when it comes to food: how to get soldiers to eat more rations when they are in the field. They know that over time, soldiers would gradually find their meals-ready-to-eat so boring that they would toss them away, half-eaten, and not get all the calories they needed. But what was causing this M.R.E.-fatigue was a mystery. “So I started asking soldiers how frequently they would like to eat this or that, trying to figure out which products they would find boring,” Moskowitz said. The answers he got were inconsistent. “They liked flavorful foods like turkey tetrazzini, but only at first; they quickly grew tired of them. On the other hand, mundane foods like white bread would never get them too excited, but they could eat lots and lots of it without feeling they’d had enough.”

This contradiction is known as “sensory-specific satiety.” In lay terms, it is the tendency for big, distinct flavors to overwhelm the brain, which responds by depressing your desire to have more. Sensory-specific satiety also became a guiding principle for the processed-food industry. The biggest hits — be they Coca-Cola or Doritos — owe their success to complex formulas that pique the taste buds enough to be alluring but don’t have a distinct, overriding single flavor that tells the brain to stop eating.

From the tomorrow's NYTimes Magazine cover story The Extraordinary Science of Junk Food. It's both fascinating and terrifying.

Poring over data one day in his home office, trying to understand just who was consuming all the snack food, Riskey realized that he and his colleagues had been misreading things all along. They had been measuring the snacking habits of different age groups and were seeing what they expected to see, that older consumers ate less than those in their 20s. But what they weren’t measuring, Riskey realized, is how those snacking habits of the boomers compared to themselves when they were in their 20s. When he called up a new set of sales data and performed what’s called a cohort study, following a single group over time, a far more encouraging picture — for Frito-Lay, anyway — emerged. The baby boomers were not eating fewer salty snacks as they aged. “In fact, as those people aged, their consumption of all those segments — the cookies, the crackers, the candy, the chips — was going up,” Riskey said. “They were not only eating what they ate when they were younger, they were eating more of it.” In fact, everyone in the country, on average, was eating more salty snacks than they used to. The rate of consumption was edging up about one-third of a pound every year, with the average intake of snacks like chips and cheese crackers pushing past 12 pounds a year.

Riskey had a theory about what caused this surge: Eating real meals had become a thing of the past. Baby boomers, especially, seemed to have greatly cut down on regular meals. They were skipping breakfast when they had early-morning meetings. They skipped lunch when they then needed to catch up on work because of those meetings. They skipped dinner when their kids stayed out late or grew up and moved out of the house. And when they skipped these meals, they replaced them with snacks. “We looked at this behavior, and said, ‘Oh, my gosh, people were skipping meals right and left,’ ” Riskey told me. “It was amazing.” This led to the next realization, that baby boomers did not represent “a category that is mature, with no growth. This is a category that has huge growth potential.”

The article includes wonderful tidbits like "people like a chip that snaps with about four pounds of pressure per square inch" and explains why Cheetos are one of the most perfect snacks ever constructed.

The foodie movement look to high end restaurants for culinary innovation, but the truth is that much more of that happens in the mass market industrial food production machine. Many high end restaurant techniques are actually borrowed from the industrial food production laboratories.

This all speaks to one of the defects of our free market economy, that these dangerous feedback loops will be set up in which we are given exactly what we want but don't need. The most insidious type of killing might be the one that happens under our very noses, so slowly we don't notice it, a caper in which we are given cheap and ready access to a slow-acting poiso and readily gorge on it until it's too late.

Reading about some of these brilliant food scientists, concocting new snacks to steal our market share, I couldn't help but think of Walter White, with his blue meth. In the tech industry, it's fashionable to talk about marketing and distribution as necessary companions to product development. Few industries embody the perfect unity of those disciplines than the food industry.