David Kessler, the man who took on the tobacco industry, explained how the food industry is manipulating our appetite and creating foods that encourage us to overeat.
The Foodfacts.com Blog has learned that the obesity pandemic which started in the United States is reaching other countries. If the current eating habits in Great Britain continue, 40 percent of its population will be obese within 15 years and by 2050, the UK could be an obese society. Even in France, where a bestseller claimed that French women don’t get fat, the consumption of processed foods has increased. Nearly 20 million French people (out of a population of 63 million) are now considered overweight.
The idea for Kessler’s book, “The End of Overeating: Taking Control of Our Insatiable Appetite,” came to him while watching The Oprah Winfrey Show. Dr. Phil, the former resident psychologist, was discussing why people are overweight. He asked a woman from the audience to explain how she gained weight:
“I eat all the time. I eat when I’m hungry; I eat when I’m not hungry. I eat to celebrate; I eat when I’m sad. I eat at night. I eat when my husband comes home… My whole thought is about why I eat, what I eat, when I eat and with whom I eat” she said.
When Dr. Phil asked the audience if they felt the same way, nearly two-thirds raised their hands. Kessler was also moved by the woman’s struggle so he decided to find out and understand what is driving people to become obsessed with food.
Most medical practitioners do not recognize the widespread pattern of overeating. To understand why we find ourselves powerless in front of certain foods, we must first explain the concept of ‘palatability.’
A palatable food has the ability to stimulate the appetite and encourage us to eat more. Palatability is heightened when the food we eat involves the full range of our senses. The most palatable foods contain a combination of sugar, fat and salt.
“The sensory properties of palatable foods, the cold, creamy pleasure of a milkshake; the aroma of chocolate cake; the texture of crispy chicken wings sweetened with a honey-mustard dipping sauce, all stimulate the appetite. And it’s that stimulation, rather than genuine hunger, that makes us put food into our mouths long after our caloric needs are satisfied,” said Kessler.
Food designers create edible products with a combination of fat, sugar and salt that make a food compelling and indulgent. Kentucky Fried Chicken is famous for its crunchy breading, a mixture of salt, MSG, maltodextrin, sugar, corn syrup and spices. The idea of good value for money is quickly dispelled once you take the thick bread coating, which reveals a small piece of chicken. Food designers, then, invented the “chicken nugget” and the latest breakthrough is “popcorn chicken” which contains even more fat and less meat.
You can trick yourself in ordering a vegetable dish, namely, mashed potatoes reconstituted from dried potatoes. The added water turns them into a mass of smooth starch flavored with gravy, a sauce made with starch, sugar, salt, MSG, caramel color and flavorings. This fast food is easy to eat: You swallow without chewing, huge quantities of starch and carbohydrates with very little satiety feedback, hence the craving for more.
A study has shown that when people were given a high-sugar, high-fat snack for five consecutive mornings, they would keep on wanting something sweet each morning. People become easily conditioned into eating food with more fat, sugar and salt.
Sometimes, only one taste of a cookie or a savory snack is enough to trigger conditioned hyper-eating. This psychological behavior is known as “priming” and it creates an irresistible urge to eat, even when one is not hungry. Moreover, the food we eat leaves its mark on the brain, creating a void that constantly needs to be filled. A cycle has been set in motion and we soon find ourselves trapped in a vicious circle.
The food industry is well aware of how hyper-palatable foods highjack our appetite and subdue our brain. The following television advertisement for a nationally popular restaurant chain clearly shows how many of us are powerless in front of a bowl of nachos or a plate of hot potato skins loaded with melted cheese.
“This isn’t about grabbing a bite. It’s about a bite grabbing you. ‘Cause when we get hold of your appetite, we’re not letting go. We are going to bring on the flavor til your taste buds explode like fireworks.’”
Indulgence is presently the greatest drive behind the marketing of food products. Work-related stress is creating a need for indulgence and relaxation. There is a growing feeling that people need pampering and self-reward. As a result, they go out not only to eat but also to forget their problems and relax. Food is seen increasingly as an escape and as a means of entertainment.
We are eating for sensation and for pleasure and the food we eat has to fulfill our multiple expectations. However food companies also want to make more profit. Mike McCloud, a former Coca-Cola executive, explains that 30 years ago, a triple chocolate muffin was made with real eggs, real chocolate and real butter. It was rich, full of flavor but very small. “Greed took over,” said McCloud as companies wanted to make bigger muffins, which cost less to produce and generate more profit. Consequently, today’s muffins contain shortening and oil instead of butter, and real eggs are replaced with powdered egg substitutes. Companies are no longer producing real food, they are using “a chemical mix of preservatives and oil” says McCloud.
It is not only the quality of muffins, which has been affected, but also supermarket food has drastically changed over the years. Many natural produce have been transformed to such an extent that our great-grandparents would certainly not recognize any of our food.
Processed food has been dubbed “adult baby food.” It doesn’t require much effort to eat and is highly calorific. Moreover, the food, which is hardly chewed and mainly swallowed, disappears before we even have time to feel satisfied; thus, we are left craving more.
The mass produced foods that we are eating are mostly made with artificial ingredients and food labels today resemble a list of chemicals. The market, in developed countries, is flooded with fake food and this consuming trend is reaching the developing world.
“The food industry is not only generating billions of dollars for itself by designing hyper-palatable combinations of sugar, fat and salt, but it’s also creating products that have the capacity to rewire our brains, driving us to seek out more and more of those products,” explained Kessler.