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.

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.

But potato chips actually have the entire holy trinity: They're also loaded with sugar. Not added sugar—although some varieties do—but the sugar in most chips is in the potato starch itself, which gets converted to sugar in the moment the chip hits the tongue. Unlike fat, which studies show can exist in unlimited quantities in food without repulsing us, we do back off when a food is too sweet. The challenge is to achieve just the right depth of sweetness without crossing over into the extreme. The industry term for this optimal amount of sugar is called the "bliss point."

So you've got all three of the big elements in this one product. But salt, sugar, and fat are just the beginning of the potato chip's allure. British researchers, for instance, have found that the more noise a chip makes when you eat it, the better you'll like it and the more apt you are to eat more. So chip companies spend a lot of effort creating a perfectly noisy, crunchy chip.

The chip has an amazing textural allure, too, a kind of meltiness on the tongue. The ultra-processed food products most admired by food company scientists in this regard is the Cheeto, which rapidly dissolves in your mouth. When that happens, it creates a phenomenon that food scientists call "vanishing caloric density." Which refers to the phenomenon that as the Cheeto melts, your brain interprets that melting to mean that the calories in the Cheeto have disappeared as well. So they tend to uncouple your brain from the breaks that keep your body from overeating. And the message coming back from the brain is: "Hey, you might as well be eating celery for all I care about all the calories in those disappearing Cheetos. Go for it."

Then there's whole act of handling the chip—the fact that we move it with our hand to directly to the mouth. When you move a food directly to your mouth with your hand, their are fewer barriers to overeating. You don't need to wait until you have a fork, or a spoon, or a plate to eat. You can eat with one hand while doing something else. These handheld products lead to what nutrition scientists call "mindless eating"—where were not really paying attention to what we're putting in our mouths. This has shown to be hugely conducive to over-eating. One recent example is the Go-Gurt yogurt that comes in a collapsible tube. Once you open it, you can just squeeze out the yogurt with one hand while your playing a computer game with the other.

As an investigative reporter, I'm trained to follow the money—and there's a trillion dollars of money to follow in the processed food industry. And I've found that the language that they use to describe their work and their products and their striving not just to make us like their products but to make us want more and more of them is absolutely revealing. Largely because these are not English majors—they are bioscientists and psychology-trained mathematicians and marketing officials. When they talk about the allure of the food, they hate the word addiction: but they'll use the word "craveability" and "snackability" and one of my favorites, "moreishness." In this context, I think the argument that personal responsibility is main culprit in overeating to be kind of disingenuous.

But when they're on the job food scientists and marketing people are so focused on their work of being successful that they tend not to see anything sinister in what they're doing. I tend not to see the processed food industry as an "evil empire" that sets out to make us intentionally obese or otherwise ill. They can rightfully say that no single one of their products is responsible for the obesity—not even soda, not even potato chips. The problem lies in their collective zeal to do what companies do—which is make as much money as possible by selling as much product as possible. So all of their energy goes into making their product as attractive as possible. They refer to creating products as engineering, and they'll spend all their effort finding the optimum level of sweetness, saltiness, and fatness that will send us over the moon. From their perspective, doing anything short of that would be not fulfilling their obligation as employees.

When they leave the companies, it's then that they can see the bigger picture. It's then that they can think about why it might be so many of us will be drawn to these products—not just liking them, but craving them and wanting more and more and in some cases not being able to stop.

The bottom line, which everyone in the food industry will tell you, is taste. Which leads to sales. They will not do anything that will jeopardize sales, and one of those things is taste. They're convinced that a good number of us will talk a good game on nutrition and health, but when we walk through the grocery store, we'll look for and buy the products that taste the best. And that's the cynical view: They will do nothing to improve the health profile of their products that will jeopardize taste. They're as hooked on profits as they are on salt, sugar, fat.

I'm hoping that the book is a wakeup call to the industry. And I hope it's empowering to people—when you understand the tactics being used, it helps level the playing field. This goes beyond the engineering of food to the marketing used on packaging and its actual placement in the store—they've studied consumer eye movement, for instance, to learn we're drawn immediately to products at middle height in the center of each aisle. (That's where they put their best sellers—the products with the most salt, sugar, and fat. If you want the healthier stuff, look high, look low.)

The cover Random House made for my book very much captures the spirit of the project. The artist went into a grocery store, grabbed a bunch of his favorite products, snipped out letters from their packaging, and rearranged them to spell what they're really about—Salt, Sugar, Fat. This rearranging allows us to look beyond the engineering, the marketing, the brand—and see what's really inside. I'm hoping my book operates in a similar way, using the industry's own documents and words to reveal how they make us want to buy their products. That knowledge is the first step towards making better, healthier choices.

This interview has been condensed and edited.