Your Brain Loves Soda

Michael Moss, with the New York Times Magazine, recently wrote an utterly compelling article called “The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food.” An excerpt from his new book, Moss’s article explains the success of processed food giants in tapping into our brain’s most basic desires. Essentially, he explains, the portion of our brains still attuned to the necessities of survival constantly crave fat, salt, and sugar. However, more is not necessarily better. There is a sort of sweet spot or “bliss point” that triggers just the right amount of pleasure in the brain without overwhelming it with one of those three essentials. 

One of the examples Moss uses is soda and, more specifically, Dr. Pepper. I think that soda/colas are an interesting test case, as they are about as far away from a naturally occurring food as it gets. Perhaps because it is so clearly artificial already, food scientists and marketers seem willing to screw with it even more.

Cue, a list of the weirdest colas I could find on the internet:

  • Of course my ears perk up when I hear about people adding wheat to weird things. Pepsi Special, which is now sold only in Japan, contains the wheat-based product dextrin, a source of dietary fiber. This fiber’s supposedly weight-loss inducing properties allow the soda to be labeled “Food for Specialized Health Uses” in Japan.

pepsi special

  • You know how… in the morning…you wake up, and you say, “Juice? Again?? If only I could just skip the next five hours til noon and have a soda.” Well, fret no more. Mountain Dew is now trying to break into the breakfast market with Kickstart, a Mountain Dew based drink combined with orange juice and caffeine. Good morning!
  • Crystal Pepsi. Like Pepsi, but completely clear and, according to 90s marketing campaigns, “healthier.” I’m really interested in the idea of perception of a food – it’s color, appearance – either working with or against it’s taste and therefore successfulness. According to Moss’s article, adding too much of Dr. Pepper’s patented syrup makes the drink too dark and unappetizing to test drinkers. So apparently there is also a sort of “sweet spot” in terms of visual “consumption” of the drink? Not too light, and not too dark?

Internet Trawlin’

Although I haven’t had time to post in the last couple of weeks, I have definitely had time to go schlepping through the internet, looking at interesting things, so I thought I would share a few of my favorites with you:

1. From Grist, “Five Packaged Foods You Never Need to Buy Again.” Jane Mountain offers some great ideas for  both saving money and avoiding the additives that normally come with processed food. I’m certainly inspired to try some more soup recipes, and I’ve already tried a new hummus recipe:

Pumpkin Hummus
1 tbsp tahini
2 tsp vegetable oil
3-4 tbsp water
1 tsp ground cumin
3/4 tsp salt, or to taste
1/4 tsp ground cayenne pepper, or to taste
1 (15-oz) can garbanzo beans
1 (15-oz) can pumpkin puree (scant 2 cups)
1 garlic clove, smashed

In a food processor, combine all ingredients and puree until very smooth. Add a bit of extra water if the mixture is too thick to blend. Makes about 2 cups.

2. “Fast Food – Ads vs. Reality,” from the blog Alphailia. The author of this blog chose to compare the images of hamburgers and tacos from fast food advertisements (including McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Jack in the Box, and Burger King) to the real thing. This probably doesn’t come as a surprise, but the real food doesn’t quite stack up to the unearthly, perfect burgers in the ads.

This is one of my favorites. Even at its most attractive angle, and “fluffed up” slightly to bring life to the bun, the real burger looks like the ad burger’s sad, special little cousin.

3. There’s been a bunch of food news recently about the growing number of people who are dumpster diving for at least some of their food. In doing research, I found out that there is a part of this movement that has a name — freeganism. A portmanteau of the words “free” and “vegan,” the term describes someone who “prefer[s] to repair and maintain the goods that already exist, share what is surplus, refuse to buy things [they] don’t really need, and acquire the few things [they] really do need through recovery of wasted goods and networks of mutual aid” (quoted from Food from a dumpster (especially the dumpsters of supermarkets and other produce vendors) allows freegans and amateur dumpster divers to circumvent what they feel is an economy of excessive materialism and waste. The sputtering economy seems to have boosted the dumpster diving or “urban harvesting” phenomenon — or at least the media coverage it receives. Grist recently posted this article on the subject, and in 2011, the documentary Dive followed a group of freegans and their lifestyle choices. I think what interests me about this movement is it makes me wonder how well we’ve retained our ability, as a species of animal, to tell whether food has gone bad or not. I would think that, what with all the preservatives and funky things that end up in our food to prevent the natural process of decay, that we would be less able to tell the difference between “mmm, perfectly ripe” and “umm I don’t feel so good.” But apparently, according to a lot of accounts that I’ve read, getting sick from dumpster food isn’t common among the initiated.


Liebster Award and Nominations

I’ve been nominated for a Liebster Blog Award by Humphrey at FinderDog — thank you, Humphrey! FinderDog is the wonderfully narrated story of Humphrey’s “quest to solve the mysteries of my past and of the world, and to do my part to make sure that the iniquitous cannot triumph over the righteous and the good.”

As part of receiving this blog award, I am posting the rules for the award and three of my favorite blogs. I’ve been looking at several, some of which you can see in my blog roll. There are a lot of wonderful words and images in these blogs.

Here are the award rules:

1. Show your thanks to the blogger who gave you the award by linking back to them.
2. Reveal your top three-five picks for the award (with fewer than 200 followers) and let them know by leaving a comment on their blog. (see below)
3. Post the award on your blog.
4. Bask in the love from the most supportive people on the blogosphere – other bloggers.
5. And, best of all – have fun and spread the karma.

Here are some blogs I have been enjoying and think are deserving of this award (in no particular order):

1. Adrianna of “A Cozy Kitchen.” A lot of wonderful recipes with a great design. What’s not to love about jalapeno bacon stuffed mushrooms?

2. Karina of “Gluten Free Goddess.” After getting diagnosed with celiac, this was one of the first places I found with recipes I enjoyed.

3. Jonathan of “Wasted Food.” Jonathan writes on important food policy issues, focusing particularly on…well, wasted food.

Thanks again, Humphrey!

Learning about the Beijing Big Mac

Once upon a time, not so very long ago, I was a grad student and I spent most all of my time reading. It got pretty exhausting, actually, and when I graduated with my MA, it was with a certain degree of relief. Over the past five months, I’ve enjoyed reading what I want to, and at my own pace.

But when I started reading The Cultural Politics of Food and Eating (you know, for funsies), the grad student in me swooned. I had missed the sound of (good) academic writing, the flow of a well-crafted argument, the sound of obnoxiously academic phrases like “cultural symbolism.” Once a grad student, always a grad student, I suppose.

As I was reading Yunxiang Yan’s “Of Hamburger and Social Space: Consuming McDonald’s in Beijing,” I came across an argument that complicated my previous way of thinking (something any good essay should do, as I try to explain to my students). I grew up in a family that treated McDonald’s as a treat, a special occasion. Consequently, it was never a part of our regular eating habits, and the fast food chain fell off my radar completely once I was diagnosed with celiac. Once I started reading about the chain’s treatment of its workers other issues, I was positive: I didn’t like what the company stood for and was up to. Its probably a knee-jerk reaction at this point. McDonald’s = bad.

Everything has a context, though, and McDonald’s Chinese context has some darkness to it. James Watson, author of “China’s Big Mac Attack” in the same anthology, argues that “McDonald’s appeals to China’s new elites because its food is safe, clean, and reliable.” These essays do a good job of explaining the nature of the native Chinese restaurants that represent McDonald’s competitors — from high-end, traditional restaurants to work unit’s shitang, or cafeterias. The cultural structure and role of these shitang mean that they’re less concerned with customer service and cleanliness than American-based restaurants such as McDonald’s. Compared to these, McDonald’s is a clean and quiet space with employees dedicated to pleasing customers.

This appreciation for McDonald’s is not only about its smiling employees. The problems Chinese restaurant patrons face with the threat of dirty kitchens and adulterated foods make McDonald’s ills seem relatively insignificant. With the threat of melamine and other adulterants in food, and the inconvenience of unreliable and unfriendly service, the almost boring predictability of McDonald’s must come as a welcome respite.

I still believe McDonald’s causes more problems than it solves, but its role in different cultures can’t be broken down into simple categories of good and bad.


For a useful article on Chinese food adulteration, see:

For a good, brief blog post explaining the danwei system that includes the canteen or shitang, see: