“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.”
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.
“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.”
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.”
Reprinted from The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite, © 2009 by David A. Kessler, M.D. Permission granted by Rodale, Inc.
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