In a swath of New Jersey, from Mahwah south to New Brunswick, a few dozen firms that work for the processed food industry are trading in one of its best-kept secrets. They’re known as flavor houses, and since the heart of their operations is chemistry, I had assumed that the most valuable thing they did for the food companies was to conjure up tastes and smells from glass beakers and test tubes.
That’s certainly part of what the industry prizes in them, and this aspect of their work is pretty fascinating. When I visited one of these houses, Flavor and Fragrance Specialties, its laboratory was bustling with people in white coats who were mixing chemical brews for a variety of consumer products. One technologist sorted the prototypes for a mouthwash. Another tested kitty litters with a panel of human volunteers who subjected themselves to the stench of synthetic urine. They’d sniff one tray of gravel, clear their noses with a special smell that blocks the urine, and move on to the next formulation. The lab had a gas chromatograph, into which it could shove, say, a Mrs. Smith’s pie, and get back a printout of the chemical structure of its smells. Then the firm’s highly trained staff would take over, wielding olfactory powers that were not all that short of a bloodhound to pull the right substances off the shelf that would match those in the pie. “The chromatograph will show the components of, say, citrus,” said Dianne Sansone, the director of technical services. “But a skilled person would be able to say, ‘I’m pretty sure there’s lemon oil in there, and I’m pretty sure it’s lemon oil from Argentina versus lemon oil from Italy.’”For the most part, the $1.5 trillion processed food industry rose to power through its relentless pursuit and manipulation of our instinctual desires.
It was late summer, so some of these skilled noses were putting the finishing touches on the chemistry of pumpkin spice, a flavoring that would be in high demand come fall. In our kitchen cabinets, pumpkin spice is made of cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and maybe ginger. Not so in processed food. Its pumpkin spice is simulated through the deployment of as many as eighty elements. These include cyclotenes, a group of chemicals that deliver a toasted, maple-like smell; lactones, such as delta-Dodecalactone, which render a creaminess and butterylike rich milk aroma, with a touch of light fruitiness; sulfurol with its custardy, eggy, creamy, and caramel-like notes; pyrazines with their brown, nutty, caramel-tinged flavor; and vanillin, or 4-hydroxy, 3-methoxybenzaldehyde, the aldehyde family version of real vanilla, creamy and sweet. These and the other compounds that go into a pumpkin spice formula are choreographed to meet the customer’s needs, and to the flavorists it’s not unlike composing a bar of music. “Do they want pie crust notes?” Sansone said. “Do they want custard notes? Do they want neither of those, just the spice notes? It also depends on the application, whether the pumpkin spice is for a yogurt or cookie or coffee or potato chips.” (That list goes on and on; when Starbucks started this craze in 2003 with a pumpkin spice latte, and we swooned, the food manufacturers began adding variations of the pumpkin spice formula to almost everything.)
At the behest of the processed food industry, the flavor houses also make scents that mimic the char on meat for a tastier veggie burger, scents that stay dormant in a box until water is added, and scents that mask the undesirable smells that can arise in the making of processed foods. These potions are the unsung champions of modern-day food that comes packaged and able to sit on a shelf for months at a time without going bad, and they are, by design, quite secretive.
In deference to the food manufacturers, federal regulators for the most part don’t require the chemical compounds used in pumpkin spice or any other flavoring to be listed among the ingredients on product labels. Rather, they’re clumped together under the vague category “natural and artificial flavors.” So, we can’t know which chemicals are being used in the food we eat, though the brain sure does. The volatiles from these compounds strike the olfactory bulb with the singular goal of arousing our appetite. Vanillin, the synthetic version of natural vanilla, is arguably the most seductive of these. The food manufacturers add vanillin to more than 18,000 products, including things that are loved by people who don’t even think they love the flavor of vanilla, like chocolate ice cream (the most popular flavor of ice cream, after—you guessed it—plain vanilla).
But for all this guile in shaping our eating habits, the ability of these chemical brews to imitate nature isn’t the most important thing that the flavor houses do for their manufacturing clients. When the food companies call on these chemical labs, they’re looking for something far more potent than mimicry. They’re using the labs to take them into the most vulnerable part of our psyche, where we act by instinct and rote rather than rationalization.
To be sure, as we’ll see, the largest of the processed food companies aren’t averse to wielding the more pedestrian tactics used by syndicates to maintain their grip on a marketplace. They’ve lobbied decision makers, meddled in our elections, and secreted their political money through intermediaries, and they’ll reach for this bag of tricks whenever they feel pressed. For the most part, however, the $1.5 trillion processed food industry rose to power through its relentless pursuit and manipulation of our instinctual desires.
One of the most basic and strongest instincts that drives our eating habits and addiction to processed food relates to the price. Evolutionary biologists frame our development as humans in terms of energy—in terms of both how we spend the energy we derive from food and how much energy we have to expend to obtain that food. For the latter, it only made sense that our forebears learned to take the easiest path in eating. Walking upright meant less effort in foraging; using fire to cook increased the efficiency of our digestion; in eating fresh meat, we chased down the sloth, not the springbok. Today, there seems to be some of this ancient behavior at play in the choices we make in food. Cheaper food means having to work less in order to pay for that food, and thus we are drawn by instinct to grocery receipts and restaurant bills that are smaller.
Can we really thank our forebears for this? Not with certainty; evolutionary biology involves a fair bit of conjecture. And none of this is meant to slight the circumstance of those many among us who are so financially pressed that cheap food is the only option. They have no real choice when deciding whether to buy a $2.78 pepperoni pizza that can feed the whole family, or a $5 pint of blueberries.
Yet how else but through the nature of our evolution to explain the BMWs and Mercedes and Jaguars that fill the parking lots of the latest food phenomenon to sweep the country. The owners of these luxury cars are patronizing a supermarket where they have to deposit a quarter to use a grocery cart, where 90 percent of the items are of an unfamiliar brand, and where the cashiers shoo them along to bag their own groceries away from the cash register so the lines can move faster.
The store is called Aldi, a fast-growing German-based discount chain with 1,900 stores in the United States and a cult-like following that is willing to tolerate any inconvenience for one reason: Its prices are half those of traditional supermarkets, and 15 percent below even those of Walmart, the heretofore champion of discount groceries. In an online club, patrons who call themselves Aldi Nerds trade news of their finds, such as the store’s Cheese Club brand of macaroni and cheese at the ridiculous price of thirty-three cents a box. (It’s not just you; everyone’s brain will tingle a little in seeing that figure.) “I know I’m gonna get some die-hard Kraft fans out there hating on me for this one, but my children actually PREFER the Cheese Club brand over all the others,” an Aldi lover wrote in her blog.Cheaper food means having to work less in order to pay for that food, and thus we are drawn by instinct to grocery receipts and restaurant bills that are smaller.
The luxury cars at Aldi aren’t a fluke, either. The chain is putting its stores in higher income neighborhoods—a bold, insightful move that has won the admiration of its competitors. “They are fierce, and they are good,” Walmart’s CEO for America, Greg Foran, told a group of investors and retail executives in 2019. “People love saving money on staples. And it would apply to every single person in this room. You feel pretty good if you can save ten dollars on your grocery bill because it makes you feel better when you go out for dinner on Saturday night and spend two hundred dollars at a restaurant.”
We might like to think that we have other priorities in shopping for food, such as freshness or health. Indeed, the success of those retailers who promote these attributes, such as Whole Foods, shows that at least some of us act on that aspiration. But the research on our shopping habits mostly shows something else. When it comes to deciding whether to toss an item into the cart, our first concern is for the price. This became even more evident in the recent emergence of online grocery sales, in which not even the face-to-face contact with our longtime grocer can compete with the allure of cheapness. “Money makes the world go round so it’s no surprise that price is the top driver of store switching behavior—by a wide margin,” the analyst firm Nielsen said in a recent report. Cheaper food was cited by 68 percent of the people as the reason they dumped their favorite supermarket for another or to buy online, followed by 55 percent who cited the quality of the food.
“We’re hooked on inexpensive food,” a former chief technical officer at Pillsbury, James Behnke, told me a few years ago, and by “we” he didn’t mean just us. The processed food industry is even more hooked on cheapness. The food manufacturers are fanatic about reducing their costs so they can lower their prices, knowing that lower prices will cause us to buy more. “Different companies have different names for it,” said Behnke, whose success as the chief technical officer was intractably bound to this goal. “Sometimes it’s called least cost formulation, margin improvement, or PIPs for ‘profit improvement programs.’ But whatever it’s called, we’re always looking for ways to reduce the cost of the ingredients in our formulations.”
Which is where the flavor houses come in. Increasingly, the big grocery chains are making their own products under their own house brands, and in this endeavor, they will ask the flavor houses to help them create items that imitate the famous big-name brands made by the traditional food manufacturers. Aldi is filled with these; its Toaster Tarts, at $1.85 for a twelve-pack, look very much like PopTarts, at $2.75.
This isn’t thievery on the part of the stores. They aren’t asking the flavor house to steal the big-name brands’ formulas. That would be all too easy, and beside the point. The stores need to sell their versions for less money, which requires manufacturing them for less, and this is where the flavor houses prove themselves to be most valuable to the food industry. Their job is to find ways to mimic the iconic brands’ flavor while using cheaper ingredients. As Sansone, the flavorist, puts it, “The big box stores want something that smells like a name brand, but they have to cost cut it.”
Real vanilla, for example, is a fantastic creation of nature, having a vast array of natural flavor compounds that give it an extraordinary depth. But it comes from orchids in Madagascar at exorbitant prices that fluctuate wildly; in 2019, vanilla beans cost $272 a pound. And thus, thanks to the flavorists, the vast majority of vanilla flavor in groceries and restaurant food is fake. It’s vanillin, one of the aroma molecules in real vanilla, that gets extracted from the waste streams of pulp and paper firms or synthesized in a lab. What vanillin lacks in flavor it more than makes up for with its pricing: $7 a pound. The flavor houses and their manufacturing clients might shave only pennies, and not dollars, off the cost of production in finding cheaper sources of everything else they use to make processed food, like those cyclotenes and lactones in pumpkin spice. But the principle is unchanged. Any loss in excitement to the olfactory bulb is more than made up for by the thrill that the brain gets in saving money.
Adapted excerpt from Hooked: Food, Free Will, and How the Food Giants Exploit Our Addictions by Michael Moss, copyright © 2021 by Michael Moss. Used by permission of Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.