On Thursday afternoon, I had the exciting opportunity to join Yazmin Khan, Yoni Freedhoff, and Hemi Weingarten on Google Hangout to talk to Michael Moss, author of Salt Sugar Fat. I was invited because of my previous post in response to the Salt Sugar Fat spread in the New York Times.
Overall, it was a positive experience, and I’m glad I had the chance to participate. Unsurprisingly, the show opened using the language of addiction as a hook: companies are making products that we can’t resist; they know it’s bad for us but they want us to eat more and more; bliss point, optimum sugar levels, mouthfeel, etc. But I noticed that many of the tweeters responding to the #ajstream hashtag were resisting the emphasis on treating junk food as a drug: some of them wanted to talk more about advertising; some of them wanted to talk about policy and legislation; someone tweeted to me that she agreed that the frame of addiction makes it sound like we don’t have any choice in the matter.
So the conversation moved naturally and productively to other things. It went to Michael Moss’s research methods (there is an immense archive of industry documents along with his interviews), and then over to me to query the word “addiction.” They gave me a very nice intro, but to be honest, I wasn’t ready for it at all–I didn’t want my brief contribution to the discussion to be combative, so I framed my question instead to emphasize the niche marketing that I think is the more interesting story in Salt Sugar Fat. (You’ll see me looking down a lot. I’m not being coy, I’m nervously reading off of a sheet of paper.)
In response, he retold the story from the end of the NYT piece about marketing baby carrots as an awesome snack food. That’s definitely one example of borrowing the snack food industry’s aggressive marketing techniques, but I’m more curious about ways of satisfying other needs that were uncovered by marketing research: if people eat junk because it’s cheap, easy, and has meaningful social currency, then it will take more than a slick marketing campaign for nutritious food to become comparably affordable, accessible, and desirable.
The discussion touched on those topics in slightly more detail in the web exclusive, mostly discussing education and parenting, with an overview of Hemi’s app Fooducate, which helps decode opaque nutritional labels.
There’s not much time in half an hour to dig in deep, but the segment is a good introduction to some of the touchstones of what will become an increasingly visible debate about the junk food and convenience food industries. I felt really good about the Twitter feedback during the show: it’s clear to me that many people really want to know more about food production, distribution, and education, and that we’re already pretty informed and getting more so all the time.
You can watch the video here, and follow some of the Twittering at #ajstream.
My previous posts on the topic:
- Framing junk food–again: my initial response to the Salt Sugar Fat NYT spread, and a comparison of the addiction frame to Prohibition-era framing of alcohol as “demon drink.”
- Your junk food preference is probably not an addiction: Emphasizes the social variables of choice and status in making food decisions, and enumerates how framing junk food as addictive disappears individual choice.
- Originally: Consider the Cheeto at Table Matters, which discusses some of the social and aesthetic reasons people do choose to eat junk food.