Why Modern Foods Hijack Our Brains

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As head of the Food and Drug Administration, David Kessler once battled tobacco companies to protect American lungs; now he’s worried about our stomachs. “We’ve turned America into a food carnival,” he said in an interview—fat, sugar and salt, the Trinity of Tastiness are “hijacking our brain circuits.” His new book, “The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite,” analyzes the chemical and cultural forces that are eating away at our health.

The book is brimming with disturbing truths: because modern meals are ultra-processed, for instance, we consume far more calories than we used to, but chew much less. (One food industry expert calls our ultra-palatable fare “adult baby food.”) In restaurants, and even our own kitchens, we focus less on nutrition and more on multisensory pleasure. The food industry’s term for it? “Eatertainment,” Kessler says.

“We’ve loaded and layered fat, sugar and salt into our food, made it accessible 24-7 and made it socially acceptable to eat anywhere, in gas stations, cars, meetings,” he says. Our zestful overeating is a very American phenomenon: “The French would never eat while walking down the street or have food in lecture halls,” he says.

Kessler scrutinizes some egregious, ingeniously engineered foods that we’ve always known were guilty pleasures (Snickers bars, White Nacho Cheese Doritos, Oreos), but he also targets others that seem innocent enough yet are quite devastating—particularly when cooked (“constructed,” Kessler would say)at a restaurant:

  • GRILLED CHICKEN BREAST: Marinades are swimming in fat, sugar and salt. In many restaurants, chicken and marinade are shaken in a cement-mixer-like machine, which infuses the meat with many extra calories. Another popular technique delivers the marinade via hundreds of needle injections.
  • COLESLAW: Carrots and cabbage would ordinarily satisfy us, because they take a lot of time and energy to chew—but only take a second to swallow when they are softened with a slathering of creamy, high-fat dressing, leaving us wanting more.
  • HAMBURGER BUNS: McDonald’s version, especially, is chock-full of sugar.
  • CAESAR SALAD—OR ANY CHAIN RESTAURANT SALAD, PRETTY MUCH: Count on a generous helping of cheese, bacon and croutons and a dousing of dressing. “The food designer calls this ‘fat with a little lettuce,’” Kessler writes. “Caesar salads are built as an excuse to carry fat and salt.”
  • SOME STARBUCKS DRINKS: Kessler singles out the White Chocolate Mocha Frappuccino: “coffee diluted with a mix of sugar, fat and salt.” (The optional whipped cream topping is almost beside the point.)
  • SPINACH DIP: “A misnomer,” Kessler writes. “The spinach provides little more than color…It’s a tasty dish of salt on fat.”

Kessler is not immune to the temptations of these lab-perfected foods: he’s helpless in the presence of chocolate chip cookies, and seems to have done an extremely thorough job of downing various deadly concoctions in the name of research. (If you totaled the yo-yo pounds he’s lost and gained over the years, they would equal more than his whole body weight.)

The modern diner’s troubles began, he says, after World War II, when agricultural advances led to an increasing supply of animal proteins, butter and vegetable oils. We began to mix and match flavors and textures with greater skill, and by the 1980s, a third of American adults weighed too much. Since then, food scientists have honed in even more exactly on the tastes that make food irresistible: with every passing year more outlandish-sounding delicacies hit the menu: pizza topped with quesadillas, burgers smothered in macaroni and cheese, and the “Three Dog Night Dog,” a specialty Kessler noticed at a hotdog stand in California (it consists of three hotdogs swaddled in a tortilla awash with cheese, chili, bacon and onions). Disturbingly, other countries that once had healthy eating habits, like Canada, are following our lead.

The only way to stop eating too much of the wrong things, Kessler says, is to realize we’re being manipulated by a powerful industry, speak out against bad food, and otherwise keep our mouths shut—at least when there’s spinach dip around.

by Abigail Tucker

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