I recently had some of my ideas about the food industry overturned, after reading Dr Kessler’s book, The End of Overeating.
Dr Kessler is a real heavy — not only was he a lawyer as well as being a paediatric doctor, he was also the commissioner of the American Food and Drug Administration. In his book, he points out the massive contradiction about food that exists in America (and in many other English-speaking Western countries).
He’s interested in how the food industry manipulates food, and how they have specifically altered modern foods to make them almost addictive.
The human body has evolved to eat when it’s hungry — and to stop when we are full. But the goal of the American food industry (aka ‘big food’) is the exact opposite. They manufacture a product that stimulates your appetite, so you eat more of it — and yet leaves you hungry for more.
And the way the food industry does this is, he claims, by using a quirk of the human brain to get you addicted to the product they sell.
Let me point out that by ‘food industry’, I do not mean your local market gardener, local provider or local food growers co-operative. No, I mean the multi-billion dollar multi-nationals, who sell processed foods that are far removed from their whole food origins.
For most of our many-million year evolution, food was hard to come by. Sugars, fat and salt were all rare and precious. And so our brains are hard-wired to enjoy sugars, fat and salt — after all, they improve our chances of survival. In the early 1980s, the American food industry realised how to really capitalise on this.
The food industry began to tailor-make products that combined sugar, fat and salt with a gorgeous ‘mouth feel’. The effects showed up in two different ways.
First, sales of highly processed products rose magnificently, and so did profits.
The second effect was the obesity epidemic. It was first recognised by Dr Katherine Flegal, a senior research scientist at the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention. She was analysing an enormous mountain of data gathered from a US Federal Government survey into the health and nutrition of American citizens. She found an unusual change from the traditional weight change pattern of the preceding century. Previously, the pattern was that American adults would gain a few kilograms between 20 and 40 years of age, and then lose these kilos in their 60s and 70s. But now the configuration was very different — there was a sudden spike in the numbers of the overweight. Dr Flegel found that some 20 million Americans, or 8 per cent of the population, had quite suddenly (over a mere decade or so) become overweight.
But how was the food industry involved in this?
Dr Kessler realised that a large proportion of the American population now had a constant battle with the desire to overeat. The Journal of Clinical Investigation wrote that: “Kessler theorises that after being exposed to hyperstimulating foods, some individuals develop what is known as conditioned hypereating”.
“Hypereating” sounds bad, and “conditioned hypereating” sounds even worse. Americans had switched from eating because they were hungry, to eating because their appetite was permanently aroused.
The food industry quickly learnt that manufacturing “hyper-palatable” products (I hesitate to call them a “food” anymore) was a simple two-stage process.
First, you incorporate fat, sugar and salt in every product you manufacture.
Second, you can load the fat, sugar and salt into the core ingredients, or you can layer them on top or underneath, or both.
As an example, let’s assume that the core ingredient is chicken pieces. The factory deep fries it, so the fat is loaded into the chicken meat — and usually freezes it for transport. The restaurant then fries them again, which increases the loaded fat. So far you have fat on fat. Then you serve the chicken with a sweet and salty dipping sauce — that’s layering.
So our chicken pieces are both loaded and layered with sugar on salt on fat on fat. If your chicken was a gun, it would be locked and loaded. It just takes longer to kill you.
Let’s take the potato as the core ingredient. It’s a carbohydrate — a bunch of sugars joined in a chain. Cut it into chips, and deep-fry it. Fat is loaded into the potato chips, and the thinner you cut them, the bigger the surface area, and the more fat they can carry. Layer it with cheese, sprinkle lots of salt on it and feed it to the consumer. You have salt on fat on fat on sugar. Cheese chips are yummy — which is good for the manufacturer, but bad for you.
Most hyper-palatable products inherently do not generate a sense of fullness. You just keep on eating, and don’t get full until you’ve eaten a ridiculous amount. No wonder the manufacturers love them.
But how do you make the customer love them? Well, I’ll talk more about that, next time …
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