Framing junk food–Again

It seems that every food outlet I read is touting the 14-page spread called The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food, from a new book by Michael Moss. It is well worth the long read: it is well-written with a flair for storytelling, introducing numerous remarkable characters (and a few caricatures): a food design genius, a penitent former food marketer, a callous CEO, a bride and heiress of the Lunchable fortune. There are frantic meetings to rescue failing brands, inventions and reinventions, overworked mothers getting the kids ready for school, overlooked demographics courted by expanding companies. It’s about people wanting to eat well and feel good, and having little or misleading information with which to make that choice. The spread is very informative and a lot of fun to read.

Because it’s a story about consumer culture. It is not a story about addiction. It’s a story about about marketers and engineers, intense and expensive lab tests and demographic research to determine what people want to buy and inventing it. It does sound a little evil-scientist at times, but it’s also pretty run-of-the-mill marketing practice for the kind of corporations that can afford it.

Let me be clear, in case I have not been: I’m not defending corporate junk food giants. I agree that junk food industry poses a huge problem in U.S. food culture (and other cultures that we influence with our very long arms).  Junk food is fast and (usually) cheap, so it often replaces more nutritive substances in the diets of folks who are short on time and money. It is fiercely and ubiquitously marketed, but not usually honestly marketed–I have a huge problem with slathering buzzphrases like “0 grams of fat!” and “whole wheat!” on packages of food with low nutritive value, not because I believe that consumers are stupidly fooled by them (I think higher of my fellow humans than that) but because it takes time and research and knowledge to really navigate the slippery, dicey language of food packaging, and people have better ways to spend their time, and they need food now and will just grab the lesser of two evils if it comes to that. I’ll even consider the possibility that junk food addiction is a real and legit physiological condition for some individuals, although science on this is fuzzy.

But the titular reference to “addictive junk food” is not a diagnosis; it’s a frame.

When I talk about the narrative of junk food addiction (as in past posts) or the framing of junk food as addictive, I mean it more or less in the way we’re talk about how a photographer frames a picture: the image has to focus on something, stop somewhere. You can’t, in fact, talk about anything without a narrative or frame; if we were to discuss all the possible angles and issues of junk food, we’d lose the thread of conversation fast and waste a lot of time covering ground. Frames are useful. But for people who make it their business to talk about junk food, it’s worthwhile to step back and look at what frames we’re using and how–what gets (over?)emphasized, what gets left out. And the addiction frame is extremely popular and frequent right now, to the point that I doubt that the Times would have considered naming Moss’s spread anything else (such as “The Extraordinary Science of Junk Food,” period), or that they would have considered featuring the story if it didn’t mention addiction somewhere–which the actual body of the text only does twice, on pp. 10 and 12, both times quoting or paraphrasing someone else’s conversational allusion to addiction. Otherwise, the closest this article gets to actually describing the addictive properties of junk is the admittedly cool section on the “vanishing caloric density” of Cheetos. The rest of the text is about the copious other reasons people eat whatever kind of convenience food that they prefer–because it’s convenient, and good enough and occasionally great. If these food companies were really designing the perfect drug, it wouldn’t be such a competition–and it’s the competition for attracting and keeping consumers that is dramatized by Moss’s research.

In my previous post about junk food, I went over several problems with the “addictive” junk food framing. To this, I should add two problems with frames generally: though useful as metaphor, they tend to get repeated as fact; and, unexamined, they tend to get hooked up onto other frames that may have only a tangential relevance. A frame can be a tool to convey information, but it can also become a knee-jerk reaction. When I wrote about junk food for Table Matters, it didn’t take long for someone to jump into the comment section with a whole paragraph about obesity, as though junk food and obesity were entirely inseparable topics, and one could never be discussed without the other. And sure enough, not long after Moss’s excerpt appeared in the NYT, someone jumped onto the Huffington Post to connect the marketing of food with childhood obesity. Are there connections worth talking about? Absolutely. But what happens in cases like this is that the frames do all the talking–a lengthy exposé about intense marketing research to reach unreached niches gives way to just another call-to-arms about saving our children from brain-washing advertisements. That doesn’t contribute to thoughtful discourse.

Because we’re presently saturated with these frames, it might be hard to separate them from truth or common sense. So for comparison’s sake, cast your mind back in history to remember the framing of the temperance movement. Teetotalers had legitimate concerns about the affect of alcohol on physical and behavioral health, but their frame for this substance and its effects was one of possession:  demon drink. (Link goes to an excellent site for a museum exhibit in Manchester that archives numerous examples of temperance documents and imagery.) Like a devil, alcohol transformed and took control of ordinary men and women and children; it destroyed health and homelife. And for some people, it definitely did–or does.

The temperance movement did effect some real social change that we still enjoy: public drinking fountains for example, or the establishment of coffee houses and other public alternatives to the social space of a bar. Rampant alcoholism was a problem with numerous causes and reinforcements in the social structure of the time, and the most effective and enduring correctives were those that offered structural changes and desirable alternatives. But generally, on this side of history, we view the temperance movement and Prohibition as failures–not least because of the perceived silliness of the frame. Culturally and legally, we no longer treat alcohol as a “demon;” we recognize that it is a powerful substance that should be regulated, but that overall it can be enjoyed in moderation by adults.

When an appealing, catchy frame gets louder than the actual exchange of information, it drowns out reality-based problem-solving. U.S. tried to manage “demon drink” by banning it; the fallout of this legislation included a flourishing criminal economy and a rise in fatal or maiming substitutions. But that landmark decision was also surrounded and supported by numerous little cultural artifacts of bad science, false equivalences, and propaganda.

Nineteenth century culture warriors loved infographics too!

Nineteenth century culture warriors loved infographics too!

I don’t think that Moss’s NYT article is the equivalent of temperance propaganda. It is in fact extremely useful to make the machinery of market and taste research transparent to the public. But let’s not get caught up in demonizing junk food, the people who eat it, or even the people who sell it, when the conversation ought to instead turn to making alternative eating accessible and desirable for the public to freely choose.

5 responses to “Framing junk food–Again

  1. I love reading your writing. 🙂 When I log into FB, sometimes I see links to your new posts, and remember that…

    Anyway, if I understand you correctly, you’re deploring the *absence* of thoughtful discourse because people use frames (which are useful) as shortcuts to connecting topics that aren’t necessarily fully connected, right? This is especially challenging for me to watch at the intersection of local/fresh food & ‘the obesity epidemic’, which thankfully from you and Amelia I’m somewhat aware is actually hurtful to many people, not necessarily a path to better health, and poor science. Because yes, people connect the two issues willy-nilly.

    • Thanks, friend!

      To be more precise, I don’t think that thoughtful discourse isn’t happening. The NYT piece I linked above is, in fact, very thoughtful, informative, and relevant. I do think that the particular frame of “junk food is addictive” is usually counterproductive, though, because it’s essentially a figure of speech that is treated and repeated as a scientific fact or medical diagnosis. The very definition of pseudoscience! I think the idea it conveys–that the desire to eat junk food may be a compulsion instead of a conscious and even rational choice–is very comforting to people, and it’s also nice to have a villain, so as a publisher I have to admit that it was a very smart decision to package Michael Moss’s book and excerpt as a story about addiction, even though there’s so little about addiction in the actual text.

      On Twitter, I just linked to another blogger’s observation of the same sort of thing: Mark Bittman picked up and repeated the rather extreme idea that sugar is “toxic,” which is a problematic way to think about a major source of energy.

      What I’d like to see instead is more careful use of language–frames and figures of speech that don’t erase the complexity and agency and humanity of people’s food choices. So yes, you’re quite right, the “obesity epidemic” is another really good example of an alarmist and pseudosciencey frame that unfortunately has the effect of pathologizing fat bodies, to hell with the people in them.

  2. Thank you so much for writing this. I have been having a really difficult time with this framing and this articulates so nicely many of the reasons why. The point that remains central to me is that, as you say, the science on addiction in general, and particularly on the addictiveness of food or its components is fuzzy – which means that it is necessary for humans to make a choice about how to interpret and encode that fuzziness. Which means, to an extent, we construct the concept of addiction, and in doing so, we bring to bear all of our underlying moral beliefs and cultural predispositions, often without realizing it.

    • Yes, that’s exactly it–I think it’s really worth thinking about why the idea of junk food as a kind of drug is so appealing and (to some) worth repeating. It seems like an extension of a frame you’ve talked about on your own site: junk food is “bad,” maybe I’m “bad” for eating it. I don’t want to be bad, but I do want to eat this food, so maybe if I “can’t help myself” because it’s “addictive,” that’s almost comforting.

      I’m glad you dropped by. I find so many of your posts helpful in articulating a positive relationship with food!

      • I am totally absorbed at present with that very question – WHY is the idea of junk food as a drug so appealing to people? There are some reasons that seem obvious to me, just on an opinion level, but I am sure there is lots going on behind-the-scenes that makes this particular hypothesis extremely attractive to a whole lot of people in this time and culture. I would love to be able to answer this question definitively someday, just for my own satisfaction if no one else’s!

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