The Language of Junk-Food Addiction: How to 'Read' a Potato Chip

Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us author Michael Moss discusses just how apt the Lay's slogan "Betcha can't eat just one" is.
Doug McLean

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature.

In Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, Michael Moss delves into the processed food industry's mastery of the art and science of craving. It may not shock you that humans are wired for fierce, profound attachment to the title's three substances—what Moss calls the "holy trinity" of junk food. But it will surprise you to learn just how deliberately and carefully food companies manipulate our lust for salt, sugar, and fat.

When I asked Moss to contribute to "By Heart," we agreed he shouldn't follow the standard formula for this series. He wanted close-read a potato chip, not a paragraph. So we discussed how these addicting little treats work magic on our tongues—making the classic Lay's slogan "Betcha can't eat just one" even truer than its originators intended.

Michael Moss is a reporter for The New York Times. In 2010, he won the Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting for his articles on deadly hamburger meat, contaminated peanut butter, and other issues relating to food safety and consumer health. He spoke to me by phone from his home in Brooklyn.

Michael Moss: You would think the Madison Avenue firm Young & Rubicam would tout that they created one of the most famous and successful slogans of all time. But a culture of client privilege permeates the advertising industry—the food processing industry, too—and firms are often loath to tout their own work for fear of offending clients. So there's no public record of who invented one of junk food's greatest taglines. I had to do quite a bit to track it down.

I learned the story from Alvin Hampel, who was not the originator but was in the room when it was created. It was 1963. Hampel was part of a team of young guys and girls in the room, pitching new slogans for Frito-Lay, while the senior copywriter, Len Holton, looked on. He was an older fellow, tottering and a little reserved, but every bit the respected gentleman. Holton listened awhile to the younger guys throwing ideas around, watched their antics play out, and then wrote something down on a little piece of paper. He passed it to a colleague and the note made its way around the room. People were dumbstruck. It's obvious, but it's genius—the best slogans are. "It was just waiting there to be plucked," Hampel told me.

Betcha can't eat just one.

These five words captured the essence of the potato chip far better than anyone at Frito-Lay could have imagined. In the '60s, the sentiment might have seemed cute and innocent—it's hard not to pig out on potato chips, they're tasty, they're fun. But today the familiar phrase has a sinister connotation because of our growing vulnerability to convenience foods, and our growing dependence on them.

"Betcha can't eat just one." These five words captured the essence of the potato chip far better than anyone at Frito-Lay could have imagined.

As I researched Salt, Sugar, Fat, I was surprised to learn about the meticulously crafted allure of potato chips (which I happen to love). When you start to deconstruct the layers of the chip's appeal, you start to see why this simple little snack has the power to make a profound claim on our attention and appetite. "Betcha can't eat just one" starts sounding less like a lighthearted dare—and more like a kind of promise. The food industry really is betting on its ability to override the natural checks that keep us from overeating.

Here's how it works.

It starts with salt, which sits right on the outside of the chip. Salt is the first thing that hits your saliva, and it's the first factor that drives you to eat and perhaps overeat. Your saliva carries the salty taste through the neurological channel to the pleasure center of the brain, where it sends signals back: "Hey, this is really great stuff. Keep eating."

The industry calls this salty allure a food's "flavor burst," and I was surprised to learn just how many variations on this effect there are. The industry creates different varieties of salt for different kinds of processed foods: everything from fine powders that blend easily into canned soups, to big chunky pyramid-shaped granules with flat sides that stick better to food (hollowed out on the inside for maximum contact with the saliva).

Then, of course, there's fat. Potato chips are soaked in fat. And fat is fascinating because it's not one of the five basic tastes that Aristotle identified way back when—it's a feeling. Fat is the warm, gooey sensation you get when you bite into a toasty cheese sandwich—or you get just thinking about such a sandwich (if you love cheese as much as I do). There's a nerve ending that comes down from the brain almost to the roof of the mouth that picks up the feel of fat, and the industry thus calls the allure of fat "mouthfeel."

The presence of fat, too, gets picked up by nerve endings and races along the neurological channel to the pleasure center of the brain. Which lights up, as strongly as it lights up for sugar. There are different kinds of fats—some good—but it's the saturated fats, which are common in processed foods, that are of most concern to doctors. They're linked to heart disease if over-consumed. And since fats have twice as many calories as sugar, they can be problematic from an obesity standpoint.

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Joe Fassler is a writer based in Brooklyn. His fiction has appeared in The Boston Review, and he regularly interviews authors for The Lit Show. In 2011, his reporting for was a finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award in Journalism.

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