How We Became a Society of Gluttonous Junk Food Addicts

By Arun Gupta
AlterNet, August 5, 2009
Straight to the Source

Every chef is said to have a secret junk food craving. For Thomas Keller, chef-owner of Per Se and The French Laundry, two of the most acclaimed restaurants in the country, it’s Krispy Kreme Donuts and In-N-Out cheeseburgers. For David Bouley, New York’s reigning chef in the ’90s, it’s “high-quality potato chips.”

“Father of American cuisine” James Beard “loved McDonald’s fries,” while Paul Bocuse, an originator of nouvelle cuisine, once declared McDonald’s “are the best French fries I have ever eaten.” Masaharu Morimoto is partial to “Philly cheese steaks,” and Jean-Georges Vongerichten confesses a weakness for Wendy’s spicy chicken sandwich. Other accomplished but less-famous chefs admit to craving everything from Peanut M&Ms, Pringles and Combos to Kettle Chips and Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Having attended culinary school and cooked professionally, I can wax rhapsodic about epicurean delights such as squab, Beluga caviar, black truffles, porcini mushrooms, Iberico Ham, langoustines, and acres of exceptional vegetables and fruits. But I also have an unabashed junk food craving: Nacho Cheese Doritos. Sure, there are plenty of other junk foods I enjoy, whether it’s Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream or Entenmann’s baked goods, but Doritos are the one thing I desire and seek out regularly. (Not that I ever have to look that hard; I’ve encountered them everywhere from rural villages in Guatemala to tiny towns in the Canadian Arctic.)

For years I wondered why I craved Doritos. I knew the Nacho Cheese powder, which coats your fingers in day-glo orange deliciousness, was one component, as were the fatty, salty chips that crackle and melt into a pleasing mass as you crunch them. I figured there was a dollop of nostalgia in the mix, but an ingredient was still missing in my understanding. Then I read a spate of articles about “umami,” designated the fifth taste, along with sweet, sour, salty, and bitter, means “deliciousness” in Japanese and is described as “a meaty, savory, satisfying taste.”

I knew some foods — parmesan cheese, seaweed, shellfish, tomatoes, mushrooms and meats — were high in umami-rich compounds such as glutamate, inosinate and guanylate. (Most people know umami from the much-maligned MSG, or mono sodium glutamate.) And I knew combining various sources of umami — such as the bonito-flake and kombu-seaweed broth known as dashi, the foundational stock of Japanese cuisine — magnified the effect and delivered a uniquely satisfying wallop of flavor.

What I didn’t know was that “Nacho-cheese-flavor Doritos, which contain five separate forms of glutamate, may be even richer in umami than the finest kombu dashi (kelp stock) in Japan,” according to a New York Times article from last year.

Mystery solved. Now I knew that whenever the Doritos bug bit me, I was jonesing for umami. I had to admit it: I am a junk food junkie and Frito-Lay is my pusher-man.

I am hardly alone. Frito-Lay is the snack-food peddler to the world, with over $43 billion in revenue in 2008. The 43-year-old cheesy chip is a “category killer,” dominating the tortilla chip market with a 32 percent share in 2006, and number two in the entire U.S. “sweet and savory snacks category,” just behind Lay’s potato chips.

$1.7 billion in annual sales in the U.S, is big business. Behind the enigma of Doritos’ dominance, and the lure of junk food to even the most refined palettes in the world, are the wonders of food science. That science, in the service of industrial capitalism, has hooked on us a food system that is destroying our health with obesity-related diseases. And that food system is based on a system of factory farming at one end, which churns out cheap, taxpayer-subsidized commodities like corn, vegetable oil and sweeteners, and the giant food processors at the other, like Frito-Lay, that take these commodities and concoct them into endless forms of addictive junk foods.

Steven Witherly begins his book, Why Humans Like Junk Food, by noting in studying the “psychobiology” of Doritos he consumed the “food intake and chemical senses literature — over five hundred research reports and four thousand abstracts — in order to discern the popularity of Doritos.” Witherly coined the term “Doritos Effect” to explain its popularity and in his book outlines 14 separate ways in which Doritos appeals to us.

There’s the “taste-active components,” sugar, salt and umami; ingredients like buttermilk solids, lactic acid, and citric acid that stimulate saliva, creating a “mouth-watering” sensation; the “high dynamic contrast” of powder-coated thin, hard chips that melt in the mouth; a complex flavor aroma; a high level of fat that activates “fat recognition receptors in the mouth increases levels of gut hormones linked to reduction in anxiety activates brains systems for reward, and enhances ingestion for more fat”; toasted, fried corn that triggers our evolutionary predilection for cooked foods; starches that break down quickly, boosting blood levels of insulin and glucose; and so on.

Witherly explains that some umami sources like MSG don’t have much taste by themselves, but when you add salt,”the hedonic flavors just explode!” And Doritos has plenty of both. The tiny 2-oz. bag of Doritos I’m holding, which in the past would be a warm-up to a Nacho Cheesier dinner, lists MSG near the top, before “buttermilk solids,” along with nearly one-sixth of my recommended daily intake of sodium.

One aspect of Doritos that whet my curiosity was, how much does Frito-Lay spend on goods like corn, oil and cheese? Not surprisingly, this data was nowhere to be found in the annual report of Pepsico, Frito-Lay’s parent company. But I gleaned a clue from a 1991 New York Times article. In it, a Wall Street analyst stated that Frito-Lay’s profit margin, around 19 percent in those days (which is close to its margin of late), approached that of Kellogg’s. The analyst, an expert on the food industry, said: “Kellogg buys corn for 4 cents a pound and sells it for $2 a box.” That’s a markup of nearly 5,000 percent over the base ingredient.

I’ll save you the math, but Frito-Lay may do even better than Kellogg’s. If it uses two ounces of cornmeal in my 99 cents bag of Doritos, it apparently costs the snack-food giant less than one measly penny. And here’s a critical point about the food industry. The more they can process basic food commodities, the more profits they can gobble up at the expense of farmers. In The End of Food, Paul Roberts writes that in the 1950s, farmers received about half the retail price for the finished food product. By 2000, “this farm share had fallen below 20 percent.”

This is the result of the global food system constructed by the U.S. and other Western powers under the World Trade Organization. Countries that once strived for food security by supporting their domestic farmers are now forced — in the name of free trade — to open their agricultural sectors to competition from heavily subsidized Western agribusinesses. By the mid-1990s, according to rural sociologist Philip McMichael, 80 percent of farm subsidies in Western countries went to “the largest 20 percent of (corporate) farms, rendering small farmers increasingly vulnerable to the vicissitudes of a deregulated (and increasingly privately managed) global market for agricultural products.”

The WTO-enforced system and government subsidies enables food giants — such as Pepsico, Kraft, Mars, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Burger King and Wal-Mart — to source their ingredients globally, giving them the power to force down prices, which drives more and more farmers off the land in the global North and South alike. Then the food companies turn around and manufacture high-profit products that seem like an unbelievable bargain to us. In fact, they make this a selling point, and not just with “Dollar Menus.”

Last year, in the wake of the economic meltdown, KFC launched the “10 Dollar Challenge,” inviting families to try to recreate a meal of seven pieces of fried chicken, four biscuits and a side for less than its asking price of 10 bucks. Of course this is a virtually impossible feat, apart from dumpster diving. But KFC isn’t hawking alfalfa sprouts and a plate of mashed yeast at that price. Witherly, in Why Humans Like Junk Food, writes that “high energy density food is associated with high food pleasure.” The corporate food’s revenue model is based on designing products oozing with fat, salt, sugar, umami and chemical flavors to turn us into addicts.

While food companies can trot willing doctors, dieticians and nutritionists who claim that eating their brand of poison in moderation can be part of a balanced diet, the companies are like drug dealers who prey on junkies. As Morgan Spurlock explained about McDonald’s in Supersize Me, the targets are “heavy users,” who visit the Golden Arches at least once a week and “super heavy users,” who visit ten times a month or more. In fact, according to one study, super heavy users “make up approximately 75 percent of McDonald’s sales.”

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