Candy bars, potato chips, french fries — why are some foods “irresistible”? Because industrial chefs have engineered them to be “hyper-palatable,” heaping together fat, sugar and salt to arouse our appetites and override the natural wisdom of the body. In his New York Times best-seller, “The End of Overeating,” David A. Kessler, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, explores the fascinating science of the human appetite and how the savvy, profit-hungry food industry has taken advantage of our biological propensity for fatty, sugary, salty foods.
The following is an excerpt from The End of Overeating by David A. Kessler, M.D. (Rodale, 2009). Drawn from the latest brain science as well as interviews with top physicians and food industry insiders, The End of Overeating is a groundbreaking investigation into why we eat the way we do, and how our modern diets — highjacked by the food, restaurant and advertising industries — have contributed to our current national health crisis. Shocking, thought-provoking and ultimately empowering, The End of Overeating will change the way you look at food and give you the tools you need to reshape your eating habits. This excerpt is from Chapter 17, “The Era of the Monster Thickburger,” and Chapter 18, “No Satisfaction.”
U.S. Department of Agriculture data show that today we’re eating more of everything. By far the largest increase has been in the consumption of fats and oils, with a 63 percent jump over a 33-year period, from per capita annual consumption of about 53 pounds to about 86 pounds.
The use of sugars and sweeteners is also up — by a modest 19 percent — and in that same period, we ate 43 percent more grain and 7 percent more meat, eggs and nuts. USDA data also report that we’re eating 24 percent more vegetables, which seems like good news until you learn that a large component of those vegetables are deep-fried potatoes in the form of french fries.
The ready availability of formerly scarce fats and sugars reflects centuries of change in agriculture and more recent developments in manufacturing, distribution and government regulations. Early human diets contained only about 10 percent fat. Sugar intake, primarily from ripe fruit, was also modest. But these commodities were essential sources of the energy needed for survival, and we developed the biological tools to appreciate them when we could get them. That may be why we have 300 or more olfactory receptors to sense the odors associated with fats, as well as an innate preference for sweetness.
When we talk about the complexity of American foods, we aren’t referring to the kind of complexity traditionally associated with fine cuisine or regional or ethnic cooking. The American concept of complexity is built on layering and loading rather than an intricate and subtle use of quality ingredients. Visitors from other cultures often remark on the difference. Yoshiyuki Fujishima, an executive at Ajinomoto, one of Japan’s largest food companies, believes that American food is fundamentally less satisfying than Japanese food.
“The food I used to eat in Japan has complex flavor, and I can get satisfaction with less quantity,” he says. By contrast, with American food, “You have to have a lot to be satiated.”
Europeans say much the same thing. To more sophisticated palates, our cuisine lacks finesse. “There is no curiosity in it ... you are swamped with very strong tastes,” one source told me. He called American food “over the top.”
Where traditional cuisine is meant to satisfy, American industrial food is meant to stimulate.
Our diet today is mostly made up of “easy calories.” According to Gail Civille, founder and president of the food industry consulting firm Sensory Spectrum, in the past Americans typically chewed a mouthful of food as many as 25 times before it was ready to be swallowed. Now the average American chews only 10 times.
In part this is because fat, which has become ubiquitous, is a lubricant. We don’t eat as much lean meat, which requires more saliva to ready it for swallowing. “We want something that’s higher in fat, marbled, and so when you eat it, it melts in your mouth,” Civille says. Food is easier to eat when it breaks down more quickly in the mouth. “If I have fat in there, I just chew it up and whoosh! Away it goes.”
John Haywood, a prominent restaurant concept designer, agreed. Processing, he said, creates a sort of “adult baby food.” By “processing” he means removing the elements in whole food — such as fiber and gristle — that are harder to chew and swallow. What results is food that doesn’t require much effort to eat. “It goes down very easy; you don’t even think much about eating it,” Haywood says.
The food consultant who told me about his industry’s secrets had much the same perspective. “We’ve gone through some kind of a metamorphosis over the years. We’ve made food very easy to get calories from.” He talked about the greater degree to which we refine foods now; an example is how we mill away the bran from brown rice and whole-wheat flour. As a result the food is “light, it’s white, it’s very easy to swallow. It doesn’t obstruct you in any way. It’s easy to get a lot of calories without a lot of chewing.”
Because this kind of food disappears down our throats so quickly after the first bite, it readily overrides the body’s signals that should tell us, “I’m full.” He offered coleslaw as an example. When its ingredients are chopped roughly, it requires time and energy to chew. But when cabbage and carrots are softened in a high-fat dressing, coleslaw ceases to be “something with a lot of innate ability to satisfy.”
Contrast apples with applesauce, and we can see the same phenomenon. When the peel is removed, much of the fiber is lost.
“Then we add sugar to it; we make it so you can practically drink the thing. It doesn’t ever provide the satiation of a fresh apple that you have to chew on.”
This isn’t to say that the food industry wants us to stop chewing altogether. It knows we want to eat a doughnut, not drink it. “What are you going to do with the sugar, put it on your tongue?” asked the food consultant. “I want to chew. I want to feel it in my mouth. The key for the food industry is to create foods with just enough chew — but not too much.”
Foods that go “whoosh” don’t leave us with a sense of being well fed. By stripping food of fiber, we also strip it of its capacity to satisfy. In making food disappear so swiftly, fat and sugar only leave us wanting more.
Instead of paying attention to what goes into our mouths, we’re engaged in a “shoveling process,” says Nancy Rodriguez. An expert on the sensory properties of food and head of the product development firm Food Marketing Support Services, Rodriguez asserts, “We eat to be belly filled.”
Reprinted with permission from The End of Overeating, published by Rodale, 2009.