Great literature is like a great meal.
In the hands of a talented writer, simple words are carefully chosen and combined into something transcendent. A master chef can do the same with basic ingredients, mixing and transforming them into a sublime dish.
Junk food has its own literary equivalent.
The language of junk food isn’t lyrical or poetic. It’s not crafted by a master of the literary arts but by the folks who brought us Funyuns® and Uncrustables®. It’s processed and assembled just like the food it describes: it’s conceived in a boardroom, designed in a laboratory, fabricated in a factory, and given a spin by marketers. It’s manufactured language for manufactured food.
Junk food isn’t trafficking in proteins and carbohydrates, and certainly not fruits and vegetables. Its building blocks are sugar, salt, and fat, known in the business as the three pillar ingredients.
Food manufacturers are on a continual quest for products with a perfect sweet-salty-fatty balance of the three pillars. That optimal mix is called the bliss point. If they hit it just right, a product is irresistible. It tastes so good that it lulls consumers into passive overeating, which happens when they keep eating after they’re full, or auto-eating, which takes place when they weren’t even hungry in the first place.
Sometimes a manufacturer tips the flavor balance too far and runs into the dreaded sensory-specific satiety. That happens when the flavors are just too big and bold. They overwhelm the taste receptors and trigger a mechanism in the brain that tells you to stop eating.
Food technologists also manipulate other features like shape, size, texture, and consistency. An appealing mouthfeel—the way an item feels pleasingly crunchy or creamy or fluffy or juicy in the mouth—is key. Flavor bursts can take mouthfeel a step further with salt and sugar crystals that are strategically positioned for targeted mouth contact.
Vanishing caloric density is like the holy grail of junk food science. A snack food with vanishing calorie density would go down so quickly and sit so lightly in the stomach that the brain would vastly underestimate the amount consumed and the snacker would just keep on snacking. When the food technologists achieve it, you can bet that they’ll push the new product up-and-down-the-street, which means you’ll find it in every supermarket, drug store, and corner market, from the chains to the mom-and-pops.
Ultimately it’s all about the junk food industry’s battle for something they call stomach share.
The World Health Organization coined their own word for it: they call it globesity.