What if it's the food—and not you—that's to blame for America's obesity epidemic?
The national conversation surrounding this question has heated up with the publication of Michael Moss's new book Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us.
But Moss isn't the first to make the case that the food industry has hijacked our brains and trained our taste buds. In 2009, in his groundbreaking book The End of Overeating, David Kessler, MD, former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, exposed the truth about America's junk-food addiction. Armed with hard science, Kessler went behind the scenes of Big Food and revealed exactly how the industry gets in your head to ensure that you "can never eat just one." His unprecedented investigation bucked the prevailing thought that people are increasingly overweight because they lack the willpower to control their eating.
In this excerpt from Chapter 4 of The End of Overeating, Kessler explores how popular restaurants use the triple-threat combo of sugar, fat, and salt to keep you coming back for more:
"Higher sugar, fat, and salt make you want to eat more," a high-level food industry executive told me. I had already read this in the scientific literature and heard it in conversations with neuroscientists and psychologists. Now an insider was saying the same thing.
My source was a leading food consultant, a Henry Ford of mass-produced food who had agreed to part the curtain for me, at least a bit, to reveal how his industry operates. To protect his business, he did not want to be identified.
But he was remarkably candid, explaining that the food industry creates dishes to hit what he called the "three points of the compass." Sugar, fat, and salt make a food compelling, said the consultant. They make it indulgent. They make it high in hedonic value, which gives us pleasure.
"Do you design food specifically to be highly hedonic?" I asked.
"Oh, absolutely," he replied without a moment's hesitation. "We try to bring as much of that into the equation as possible."
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During the past two decades there has been an explosion in our ability to access and afford highly palatable foods. Restaurants—where Americans spend 50 percent of today's food dollar—sit at the epicenter of this explosion.
Countless new foods have been introduced in restaurants, and most of them hit the three points of the compass. Sugar, fat, and salt are either loaded onto a core ingredient (such as meat, vegetable, potato, or bread), layered on top of it, or both. Deep-fried tortilla chips are an example of loading—the fat is contained in the chip itself. When a potato is smothered in cheese, sour cream, and sauce, that's layering.
I asked the food consultant to describe the ingredients in some foods commonly found in popular restaurants today.
Potato skins, for example: Typically the potato is hollowed out and the skin is fried, which provides a substantial surface area for what he calls "fat pickup." Then some combination of bacon bits, sour cream, and cheese is added. The result is fat on fat on fat on fat, much of it loaded with salt.
Cheese fries "take a high-fat food and put more fat on top of it," he said. The potato base is a simple carbohydrate, which quickly breaks down to sugar in the body. Once it's fried and layered with cheese, we're eating salt on fat on fat on sugar.
Buffalo wings start with the fatty parts of a chicken, which get deep-fried. Then they're served with creamy or sweet dipping sauce that's heavily salted. Usually they're par-fried at a production plant, then fried again at the restaurant, which essentially doubles the fat. That gives us sugar on salt on fat on fat on fat.
"Spinach dip" is a misnomer. The spinach provides little more than color and a bit of appeal; a high-fat, high-salt dairy product is the main ingredient. It's a tasty dish of salt on fat.
Chicken tenders are so loaded with batter and fat that my source jokes that they're a UFO—an unidentified fried object. Salt and sugar are loaded into the fat.
The White Chocolate Mocha Frappuccino served at Starbucks is coffee diluted with a mix of sugar, fat, and salt. The whipped cream is optional.
Bloomin' Onions—the trademark Outback Steakhouse dish—are very popular, and they too provide plenty of surface area to absorb fat. Fried in batter and topped with sauce, their flavor comes from salt on sugar on fat.
Salads contain vegetables, of course, but in today's restaurants they're more than likely to be smothered in a cream-based ranch dressing and flavored with cheese chunks, bacon bits, and oily croutons. The food consultant calls this "fat with a little lettuce," although there's salt in the salad as well. Even lettuce has become a vehicle for fat.
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I began reading the Cheesecake Factory menu to my industry source. He called the chain, known for its vast spaces and equally vast portions, "an icon of indulgence."
We started with the appetizers.
"Tex Mex Eggrolls: Spicy chicken, corn, black beans, peppers, onions, and melted cheese. Served with avocado cream and salsa," I read. The food consultant said the avocado alone is about 15 to 20 percent fat, and that's before any mayonnaise or heavy cream is loaded in. A fried outer layer wraps fat and salt around more fat.
"Roadside Sliders: Bite-sized burgers on mini-buns served with grilled onions, pickles, and ketchup." The words suggest a cute, little hamburger, but he said there's salt and fat in the meat, and sugar and salt in the caramelized onions and the ketchup. In reality, this dish is fat surrounded by layers of sugar on salt on sugar on salt, making it another grand slam.
"Chicken Pot Stickers: Oriental dumplings pan-fried in the classic tradition. Served with our soy dipping sauce." Frying the pot stickers replaces the water in the wrapper with fat. The layer of meat inside is loaded with salt, while the outside layer of sauce is rich with sugar and salt. "That's hitting all the points," my source said, sounding almost rueful.
"Buffalo Blasts: Chicken breast, cheese, and our spicy buffalo sauce, all stuffed in a spiced wrapper and fried until crisp. Served with celery sticks and blue cheese dressing."
For a moment the food consultant just laughed. "What can I say? That's fat, sugar, and salt." Chicken breast allows us to suspend our guilt because it suggests a low-fat dish, and the celery sticks also hint at something healthy. But the cheese layer is at least 50 percent fat and carries a load of salt, and the buffalo sauce adds a layer of sugar on salt. That dough wrapper—a simple carbohydrate—is fried and so absorbent that he called it "a fat bomb."
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Just as chicken becomes the carrier for fat in the Buffalo Blasts, pizza crust can be a carrier for sugar and fat. Caesar salads are built as an excuse to carry fat and salt. We double-fry french fries, first at the manufacturing plant and then in the restaurant. Our hamburgers are layered with bacon and cheese. We add cheese to spinach, batter our fish before frying it, and slather our Mexican food with cheese. As we do, each one of these foods "becomes more compelling, more hedonic," said the consultant.
As our conversation wound down, he walked me to the door of his office and paused, as if choosing his words carefully. Then, with the certainty of an insider, he observed that the food industry is "the manipulator of the consumers' minds and desires."