The supermarket as an ambush

The supermarket as an ambush

We do not use plastic bags but we return from the supermarket with foods that are an atomic bomb, the ultra-processed ones.Pizza, chocolate and ice cream is the trilogy that makes the most profits for the corporations that make what we eat. The same with the cookies: they are no longer made by the master pastry chef but by machines that combine cheap raw materials - flour, sugar, fat - in a sophisticated way and with recipes in which even neurologists and marketers take part. Is there Plan B, even in times of adjustment?

Advancement of Malaleche (Planet), the new book by Soledad Barruti

It's Tuesday morning and Walmart smells brand new like every time it opens its doors; Functional music, a shiny floor and the gondolas crammed with products with no empty space. The doctor and neuroscientist Jimena Ricatti — round, sparkling eyes, bobbed hair, beige dress with white polka dots — arrives on time for the meeting.

"The supermarket is the perfect place for food to become a trap." But, what happens if we go through it trying not to fall into it? He proposed to me a few days ago and that's what we came to.

Ricatti is forty years old, Argentine by birth, Italian by choice, and she investigates the effect of sensory manipulation on taste: an enigma that leads her to explore ingredients, additives, packages and advertisements, and, of course, to spend long hours in places like this.

We gather in front of the breakfast cereal boxes, arranged in a perfect tetris of sugar, chocolate, friendly tigers, elephants, bears and promises of fiber, vitamins and low cholesterol, and we begin.

"Let's just look," he says, and that's what I do: I walk beside him in silence, looking at the gondolas as if they were a landscape.

From the cereals we go to the dairy sector where the pots of yogurts and desserts are piled up, decorated with dinosaurs and colored pills, and the sachets on which fruits, vanillas, silhouettes of skinny women are printed with their names as mandates: Be, Activia, Regularis. We continue between huge bottles of juice and soda filled with radiant colors - blue, violet, green, gold, orange, red - and then we stop at the twenty meters dedicated to juices in which this season are pure exotic combinations: passion fruit and banana , sweet orange and peach, strawberry and melon. I look at thesnacks —3D, Cheetos, Dorito— very rare constructions that would have to be translated for someone traveling in time from a rather recent past. We surround the gondola of cookies with their glossy packages that protect an almost infinite variety of flavors to eat at any time, and something begins to happen. I arrived at the supermarket a little hungry (she had suggested that I do so) and although the idea was to find arguments that would help me improve my son's diet, the charm works: suddenly I crave some cookies, Melbas? Frutigran? Smiles? One of each? I think and Ricatti, as if reading my mind, says:

"Don't you fancy them?" It is unavoidable. These products with all their variety turn us on: the presentations provoke strong sensory stimuli that warn that inside those packages there are large amounts of fat and sugar: exactly what the brain is programmed to look for - he says, taking me to the opposite extreme in which we are : to the greengrocer.

"Our food map until a few years ago would have been something much more like this but much broader and more diverse," he says as we look at the plastic-hard, fluo-green bananas, carrots, and tomatoes that seem to have been frozen forever (and probably have been). have been), charred lettuces, pale apples, beaten oranges, potatoes all the same: a pile of black ground potatoes, another with the potatoes already washed. Timeless products, almost tasteless and laced with poisons.

—Not only are they not attractive per se, after so many stimuli it is logical that they don't seduce us. The brain was dazzled, the body felt the impact of those edible promises, now it must be convinced that fruits and vegetables that do not have abundant sugar or fat are also rich.

The message behind the set is clear: the supermarket makes three times more money selling ultra-processed products than real food, the industry increases its income exponentially the more it processes the same cheap ingredients, and that is reflected in the willingness and dedication that they put into one another.

"But let's get back to the cookies," Ricatti suggests, and we do. We place ourselves again among those packages that seem to be so much more alive than the husks and leaves.

"Close your eyes," he says, taking one of the shelves and barely moving the paper. Near my right ear I feel the slight creak of the plastic, the package opening. Pull out a cookie, the air turns chocolate and vanilla,undoubtedly Oreo, and my mouth is watering.

—These cookies are the result of studying our five senses. More than generating pleasure - something that is always linked to good food - what they seek is to trigger an irrepressible excitement. And there is a big difference: the industry defends its preparations saying that they are pleasant products, however, they are products that go beyond pleasure, that have an intensity such that they can cause addiction.

"Does something like this happen in these cookies?"

-Exactly. There are books that describe how they were thought: the sum of fat and sugar, the contrast between the saltier black layers and the extremely sweet white filling, the crunchy exterior and the softer, moister interior ... it's called dynamic contrast: a nice jolt to the mind that can be completed by combining the cookies with a glass of milk.


"Because milk cleanses the palate and then you can eat more." A drink of milk, a bite of Oreo and so on until the package is finished. It is perfect. And the same goes for these, and these, and these, ”he says, pointing packet by packet at the vanilla, raspberry, honey, the ones that claim to have cereals. They are the fireworks of this great science fiction movie that is our food culture. The diversity with which they present the same ingredients keeps the desire awake: something fundamental if you are a company that manufactures food and you want to sell a lot.

* * *

The sugar and fat that supermarket products offer are ingredients tied to our survival instinct. We want them because they give us energy and keep us alive and until just yesterday in the history of our species it was not easy to find any of those things in large doses, except for one attached to the other and never in formats similar to those found today in gondola .

Say sugar for the brain is say glucose. A substance that we need to think, move, fall in love. To live. Glucose is the most abundant compound in nature: nuts, cereals, fruits, vegetables, in greater or lesser quantity everything contains it. What is the problem, then? That today glucose is still where it was, in these foods, but above all it is consumed in new presentations where it appears practically isolated and even in excess: white flour, white rice, starch (almost pure glucose) and in simple sugar (in addition to glucose, fructose somewhat more difficult to metabolize).

Thus, glucose is consumed in noodles, breads, cookies, juices, yogurts that look like candy: they are extra sugary and are also thickened with starch. Without vitamins, minerals, or natural fibers, these foods offer practically empty calories, which dazzle the brain and make us insatiable. With sugar only enough but if fat is also added, the effect is multiplied. In nature, fat is obtained with effort: it comes in the meat of an animal that must first be hunted or in nuts that must be collected, handled, and peeled.

Today, on the other hand, from fat (from a fat, isolated, coming mainly from ultra-processed vegetable oils, as refined as white flour) we are separated by a few movements, the ones it takes to open a package of potato chips or the minutes in how late to arrivedelivery which we call without moving from the chair. What are the most successful foods on the market? Ice cream, chocolate and pizza: white flour (glucose), a sweet tomato sauce (more sugar) and the velvety creamy fat of melted cheese. A resounding success, an almost heavenly offer, a proposal against which we have no defense weapons.

—In reality, pleasure is part of the evolutionary bargain: seeing rich foods, intuiting them, or trying them ignites the brain with dopamine (the neurotransmitter responsible for enjoyment) and activates what is known as the reward system: a torrent of well-being that triggers hormones and awakens to the digestive organs by warning them what they are going to receive: a succulent bite, ”says Ricatti and places the open package of Oreos on the monkey we grab, pretending to be shoppers. And in the face of the right foods that this happens is wonderful. The problem is that brands know better than anyone how the reward system works. They have studied it and know how to excite it to levels that natural food, that of every day, does not reach.

Brands do not create food but perfect sensory traps, with special effects that activate the reward system in a more violent way.

"And that's what we see here," Ricatti says as we walk betweenmuffins, puddings, alfajores. All edibles are more attractive, sweeter and greasy, they have perfect textures with which they also educate children.

"That is very important," Ricatti says as if to say to me, write down: "The brands always try to catch the boys as small as possible." Because early childhood is when the reward system sets in. And if they get hooked, they turn them into customers for life.

* * *

In Padua, the Italian city where she now lives, Jimena Ricatti started a project she named SensoryTrip. A laboratory with a kitchen where he is dedicated to breaking down products and strategies of the industry. Analyze formulas, test preparations and compare additives to understand what is the secret that makes them irresistible. His exploration began in Buenos Aires in 2007, in a space directed by the biologist Diego Golombek that became known as “The basement of perception”. A place of exchange and meeting for young scientists that became popular when they managed to set up a fair at the Museum of Natural Sciences of La Plata. At that time Ricatti was in charge of the experiments aimed at teaching about smell and taste. The event was a success with hundreds of people of all ages seeing how smell can invoke memories or how forcing a child to finish a plate can make them hate a meal forever. Enthusiasm led her to hasten the times. He finished his doctoral thesis (on the sense of sight) and traveled to Italy to do a post-doctorate. He first landed at the University of Padua, where he concentrated on developing a bioelectronic nose for explosives detection at airports. And then, before opening his own experimentation center, he spent time at the Verona University, where he oriented himself to the study of Parkinson's and the evaluation of the senses with patients who were losing them.

It was thus, among people without smell, or with impaired sight and hearing due to this disease, who wanted to eat and could no longer, that he understood what that thing that until then only intuited was about:

—An old man with Parkinson's may believe that he smells bread when he smells fish, or he may lose his sense of smell completely and that the food ends up tasting like cardboard. He immediately stops enjoying himself, which results in an accelerated process of disintegration: in a short time his memory and speech end up being damaged, and he goes into depression and dementia.

"Why is it good for a healthy consumer to know something like that?"

—Because it helps you understand how our senses create or modify reality and why manipulating us is no nonsense. For example, in a jungle, colors help us to look for nutrients. Here, that same wonderful ability is trapped in this, ”he says between the juice bottles with liquids ranging from yellow to purple.

According to the Permanent Survey of Household Consumption in Argentina, 60 percent of the drinks consumed by children under twelve are sugary and colorful. In my own survey I could get to 90 percent. "I don't like water," Benjamin said, and one day I was convinced that I had no choice but to buy him juice because of course it doesn't just happen with hunger, all new mothers know that a child can also die of thirst.

—The juices are incredible, whenever I return to Argentina I am surprised: the manufacturers create flavors every year that are pure chemical and chromatic manipulation… Imagine if they didn't have these colors —he asks.

It's easy: without your colorants you areRaspberry blue, pink tropical fruit and refreshing lime yellow bottles they would be filled with a cloudy suspension, not white, not transparent, rather something close to liquid smoke, nothing tempting.

"The colorants are essential." Nobody drinks sugar water in large quantities: it is the artificial colors, aromas and flavors that make these drinks something that a two-year-old can swallow until he exceeds the digestion capacity of his own stomach.

Companies like Coca-Cola have studios where they boast of the same thing: colors make beverages more palatable, making children drink up to twice as much.

"But does drinking too much benefit that child?" Ricatti wonders. No. There is no serious study showing that a child will become thirsty with water available. However, brands manage to install that fear while selling you drinks that, worse, deteriorate your health. High fructose corn syrup, preservatives, colors, flavoring, and raspberry flavoring, ”she says, reading the label on an electric blue Gatorade. This drink is artificial raspberry, painted with a color that does not exist in the raspberry universe and finished with a sweet that is impossible to replicate at home.

* * *

The food industry has many tools to trap us. And when Ricatti says that the strategy is focused on activating the reward system with its most primitive mechanisms — those before which the will and reason are severely diminished — he is not exaggerating.

One of the most effective tools in the industry today is neuromarketing.

What is it about? From redesigned biomedical screening teams to finding out how next summer's ice cream can be even tastier, how many chocolate chips give the sensation ofmany chips, or what is the fat limit that makes something go from irresistible to revulsive.

Connected to sensors, eye and face movement detectors, EKGs, EEGs, and MRIs, potential customers smell, look, feel, eat and express what the edible seemed to them. They don't even have to speak: machines in direct communication with brains do it for them.

The decisions made in light of the hidden desires that the brain reveals are mind-boggling: Frito-Lay, for example, added more orange to its Cheetos when EEGs revealed the stained fingers that gave a feeling of "dizzying subversion."

Thanks to neuromarketing, it was also discovered how crispy asnackto erase "caloric density": eat, feel it in the mouth but not in the belly, continue like this: one potato chip after another until the package is finished.

And after having read their minds today it is known that children's brains can be "trained" by exposing them to stimuli that make them stop more on one product than another, until they have their favorite logos engraved forever.

"Why is this bunny looking at that angle?" Asks Ricatti, who a few months ago did her own specialization on the subject to understand it, and holds up a box of Trix cereal. Because he is looking to make eye contact with children: it has been proven that this gives them confidence, encourages them, they like it; and they ask to be bought. By the way, the more information on the front of the package, the less likely that you as an adult will turn it over in search of the ingredient list to see what they are made of.

* * *

Ultra-processed edibles seduce and fool children with sugar, oils and additives while forging an unbreakable gastronomic identity: that of brands. It is something that Ricatti clearly observes when, for certain investigations, he must conduct interviews. In one about food preferences, a six-year-old girl told you that she liked chicken legs.

—I told him: "Oh, that's good, you like chicken a lot." But he replied: “No. I don't like dead chicken ”. Today children have their preferences dissociated from reality and that is the greatest achievement of brands: they educated the palate and the senses of children in tastes that only they can satisfy, ”says Ricatti.

Just as children are unaware of the variety and origin of vegetables and fruits, many of them find meats in their natural state a rarity. You can also see it at Walmart: the butcher shop has been replaced by impersonal refrigerators full of vacuum-sealed bags or polystyrene trays where the meat is presented wrapped in plastic, without bones, without skin, without feathers or hair, almost without blood and with odor. to paper lm. Stripped of her animal past, let's say.

—The ultra-processed are one more step in that direction that is already unrealistic. And also a better business.

Fat, skin, hair, organ meats, cartilage mixed with soy or corn flours, poor quality oil, nitrates and nitrites to preserve, colorants, flavorings and flavorings: —If we strip edibles of the additives that give them a uniform and tempting and we would do an autopsy we would find that chicken legs, sausages, hamburgers and cold cuts are inedible, ”says Ricatti, walking between the refrigerators. And that's the quintessence of processing: selling expensive ingredients for cheap and even discards through sensory manipulation.

-Look thesenugetts with ham and cheese, ”he says now, picking up a bag at random as he goes, between croquettes and medallions, disenchanted by what he touches. If humans had found something similar to this in nature, we would be very different: we would have another body, other intestines, another brain. We evolve between plants, seeds, real meats, and that is what our body still needs to be well. Modern edibles do not provide vitamins, minerals, or fiber in their natural state. I mean, they don't feed, ”he says. And consuming things that do not feed in childhood leads to various problems. Among them, a much more limited development of brain function.

The latest published research proves him right: a study of fourteen thousand children carried out in England suggests that if they start consuming ultra-processed foods at three years of age, at eight the IQ is reduced.

"It's not bullshit," Ricatti insists. It will be about people with less possibility to choose, less freedom, more conditioning. And at the same time an alteration of their innate abilities to regulate, for example, their appetite and satiety.

* * *

Children's ability to properly feed themselves always aroused curiosity. But in 1927 an experiment was done that sought to definitively demonstrate that there was an instinctual intelligence around food.

The place chosen for the investigation was an orphan home. Dr. Clara Davis selected fifteen babies between six and eleven months who had not had contact with other food than milk and who had not shared lunches or dinners with adults who could influence them. Some of them were healthy and others anemic and decalcified; there were four underweight and one with rickets. Davis drew up a list of what they were going to offer them over six years, including "everything that is known to be necessary for human nutrition."

He looked for whole grains and fresh foods found in the markets. In total there were thirty-five products: water, glasses of milk and sour milk; sea ​​salt, and among all that apples, bananas, orange juice, pineapple, peaches, tomatoes, beets, carrots, pears, turnips, cauliflowers, cabbage, spinach, potatoes, lettuce; oatmeal, polenta, barley, crackers; eggs and beef, sheep, chicken; marrow, cartilage, brains, liver, kidney, gizzards and fish. The preparations commissioned from the cooks were as simple as possible, trying to preserve the flavor and nutrients.

The nurses in charge of feeding the babies received a clear order: to bring the spoon closer with the empathy of a robot. Babies could also choose to eat with their hands and were never corrected. Conclusion? In six years no child had a problem with food. There was not a single case of constipation, diarrhea or vomiting. There was hardly any isolated flu, but it did not last more than three days. "In the moments of convalescence the children chose raw meat, carrots and beets," Davis noted. Although everyone had their preferences, each one managed to eat a highly balanced diet without help.

At the end of the study and after rigorous analysis, "everyone was as healthy as they looked." The child who started the trial with rickets ate cod liver oil until his condition reversed.

The work was presented in 1939 at the congress of the Medical Society of Canada, immediately went around the world and is still controversial. A little because it was taken as a favorable argument by those who say that children should be the absolute guardians of their diet (something that Davis always denied) and a little because the most important conclusion of the analysis, that innate tendency to eat the right diet when eating offered are those indicated, he did not have his counter-test: what would happen if the children were exposed to two options, processed foods versus fresh foods.

The economic depression of the years after the study suspended what was to be the natural continuation of the investigation and left Davis unanswered to his second big question: is there an innate tool to circumvent the seductive offer that the food industry was already trying ? Without authorization from anyone, seventy years later the experiment and its effects are ongoing and have overwhelming results.

* * *

"I think the best way to keep children safe from all this is to try not to expose them," Ricatti says. Prevent them from running into this absurd way of eating.

Although he knows that this is practically impossible.

The sales strategy is perfect in the first place because the exit from this maze ofpackaging, marketing and flavoring it is quite difficult. Feeding is not an individual act but a collective one. And as much as the Pan American Health Organization says that it is a bad idea, our society seems to have decided that this is what children eat: cookies, chocolate, bread with candy, juices.

They could have been other products, no doubt. In fact, children are born programmed to eat almost everything:

"Even inedible things like dirt, worms, sand," Ricatti says.

But to fix these cravings as habits they need adults around them first and their peers to do the same afterwards.

Nobody eats in isolation, nor does he configure his preferences. Our habits are a confirmation of the culture in which we are born. The first flavors arrive with the amniotic fluid, they cross the placenta, presenting us with the food of the world that will receive us; they continue, more intense, with breast milk; until consolidating in that stage during which the Japanese teach their children that sashimi is eaten there, and the Mexicans do the same with tortillas. So it always was. Or was. Because today's Japanese, Mexican and Argentine children have less and less peculiarities and more similarities. From gestation, both are being introduced to the same flavors: those of the intense industrial monodiet.

And that is the most delicate problem faced by any family that wants to make their children's habits different from what the rest do, such as giving them fruits instead of cookies for a snack: eating links, socializes, creates a sense of community. And, far from home, thrown into that huge world that is the school, the square, the neighborhood, eating differently leaves the children more alone, isolated, or pulled between their family, their friends and that bubbly advertising that underlinesLet's enjoy together, let's uncover happiness, let's have more fun, until the choice becomes inevitable.

"And in the end I will probably win what everyone eats," Ricatti says. That is why I believe that changing this way of eating is a collective matter. We have to stop seeing as normal for children to eat products that do not feed them, that fill them with empty ingredients and that invite them to a unique eating experience: the one that the food industry wants. You have to change advertising for information. That's where the first exit door hides, ”he says as we leave the supermarket, leaving the monkey with the barely open package of Oreos abandoned among the gondolas.

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