The Strange Science of Junk Food Jargon

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In George Carlin's 1990 HBO special "Doin' It Again," he spent a good chunk of time talking about the dangerous use of what he called "soft language" in our then-and-still-now politically correct society.

His best example was in the realm of how we talk about combat veterans who return home from wars and lose the ability to function in normal, everyday life. In World War I, he says, it was called "shell shock." In World War II, the condition started to be called "combat fatigue." After Korea, "when Madison avenue was riding high," it got rephrased to "operational exhaustion." And the phrase used now, ever since Vietnam, is "post-traumatic stress disorder." And it's a big problem. "I'll bet you if we'd have still been calling it shell shock," he concludes, "some of those Vietnam veterans might have gotten the attention they needed at the time."

His point was that in taking away the hardness of the words, the seriousness of the diagnosis began to lose its meaning. If you soften language to keep people from being offended, you also lessen the ability to incite people into action when it's necessary. But on the flip side of that equation might be something equally troubling: by using soft, somewhat-confusing CorporateSpeak, you make it easier for those who are working in morally-iffy professions to keep from thinking too much about it. (Kind of like how the killing of innocent civilians in wartime is a little easier to swallow if they're referred to as "collateral damage.") And if your job is engineering processed pieces of junk food with the hopes of getting consumers addicted to your products, well, then you're going to need some pretty soft lingo if you want to sleep well at night.

That's what was going on in my head while reading about the fascinating bits of junk food jargon that writer Paul McFedries found.

For example, the scientists working to create the various processed pieces of junk food that fill our pantries and stock every vending machine don't deal with salt, sugar and fat. They deal with the "three pillar ingredients," that are tweaked and massaged until a balance is found, like a sound engineer finding that perfect mix of bass and treble. And when they find the best possible balance of those three items, the piece of processed food hits something called a "bliss point," wherein the consumers can't help but continue chowing down, even well past the point where their hunger has subsided.

And as he makes known, food scientists need these bits of benign jargon because they're not exactly working in an industry that's all that helpful to the world at large:

The holy grail of junk-food science is vanishing caloric density, where the food melts in your mouth so quickly that the brain is fooled into thinking it's hardly consuming any calories at all, so it just keeps snacking. In the process, packaged-food scientists want to avoid triggering sensory-specific satiety, the brain mechanism that tells you to stop eating when it has become overwhelmed by big, bold flavors. Instead, the real goals are either passive overeating, which is the excessive eating of foods that are high in fat because the human body is slow to recognize the caloric content of rich foods, or auto-eating: that is, eating without thinking or without even being hungry.

(The bolding is his.)

The whole process kind of puts into light how deceptive and manipulative the process of junk food creation is. That slogan from Lay's potato chips ("bet you can't eat just one") is put in a different context once you realize that the food scientist's job is to literally adjust the ingredients in those chips or cookies or granola bars or whatever until it's physically challenging to eat just one. No wonder they don't want to call it what it truly is: A criminal enterprise.

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About the Author

Rick Paulas has written plenty of things, some of them serious, many of them not, scattered over the vast expanses of the Internet. He lives in Los Angeles and is a White Sox fan.
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