What was the most shocking thing you found in those Philip Morris records?
In terms of addiction, it was their struggle to concede that something they had vehemently denied was addictive was in fact addictive. What was most shocking, though, was not in the documents, but when I sat down with the former top lawyer for Philip Morris, Steve Parrish. We were just kind of chatting about smoking and his smoking habits, and he said, “Look, I’m one of those people who could take out my pack of cigarettes and have a cigarette during a business meeting, and put it away, and have no compulsion to look at or take it out again until the next day.” But he goes, and my jaw’s dropping, “But I couldn’t go anywhere near our Oreo cookies, for fear of losing control, because I would eat half the bag.” And so to me, I think one of the most surprising, shocking things is how many insiders don’t touch their own products. Either because they know the health implications of that or because they know that they will lose control.
How does food addiction compare to addiction to heroin or cigarettes or anything like that? How is it different?
I went from thinking it was ridiculous to compare Twinkies to heroin to thinking that actually, in some ways, food is even more powerful than drugs. One of those ways is memory. We begin developing memories for food at an incredible early age, possibly even in the womb. And those memories remain incredibly powerful to us, and remain with us for the rest of our lives, whereas drug addiction tends to get us in our teens and last through the mid to late 20s. Those are powerful memories, but they’re generally limited to that time frame. So memory, I think, in food is more powerful.
The food environment generally is more powerful than drugs. For somebody who has trouble dealing with sugar, every time you go shopping is like an alcoholic walking into a bar. Also, you can’t abstain from food. So in that sense, I think food is more difficult. And then talking to these scientists who used to study drugs and now study food, they’ve pressed upon me how one of the hallmarks of addiction is speed. The faster a substance hits the brain, the more excited the brain gets and the more apt you are to act impulsively on that substance. It turns out there’s nothing faster in hitting the brain than food.
To what extent is the food industry aware of all this and taking advantage of it?
Part of me still resists seeing this as this evil empire that intentionally set out to make us sick on their products. These are companies doing what all companies want to do, which is to make as much money as possible by selling as much product as possible. But I have to say that when you look at their effort in all of their waking hours to maximize the allure of their products, it’s a really fine line between making something that gets people excited and wanting more, and making them addicted so that they’re completely losing free will in the matter.
But I think that over the years these companies have gained an understanding that they may have crossed that line. I’ll give you this crazy example I ran across recently. The current owner of Nabisco put out a video where they have a nutritionist come in to help us engage in what they call mindful snacking, as an antidote to mindless snacking, which is kind of what their products are all about. And so she goes though these steps that you can take to gain control over your eating habits. The last step is just so beautiful. She’s got a dinner plate and she puts three Oreo cookies on it. And she says, “Try to pick up just one cookie,” don’t stuff your whole mouth with them, “and take just a bite of the one cookie, and then before you gobble it up, put it back on the plate, and try to sort of control yourself.” It was such a revelation though, because here is a company making one of the biggest icons in the grocery store, that’s obviously speaking with insider knowledge to this problem, which is that for so many of us, their product is so perfectly engineered that we lose all willpower. I think that’s an example of where big companies truly know how powerful their products are.