Thursday, July 25, 2013
The American Paradox
The number of books and articles on the subject of American fatness is vast, and the answers aren't really conclusive. And every day, it seems, there's news of another country approaching or even surpassing American fatness.
The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite by David Kessler is one of the many to ask what can be done. Kessler examines not just the food Americans eat, but the way it affects them. Specifically, he argues, carefully engineered food products of many types change people's brains to make them crave more and more of their favorites. Beyond describing how food affects people, The End of Overeating offers advice on how to overcome the effects of this manipulation, though I'm doubtful that most people have the willpower to do so.
Crave is the key word here. Creating food that people just can't stop eating is the goal of many industrial food laboratories, and Kessler describes both how they do it and how they express their goals of making people into a kind of food-crazed zombies: not his choice of words, but I think the current obsession with zombies reflects a kind of pervasive fear that we have been seized by forces that we can't control, and this is one of them.
Satisfying food is the alternate to cravable food, according to Kessler. Satisfying food is the old-fashioned kind that could be eaten until one had enough. Satisfying food was plain food that didn't have a lot of added salt, sugar, and fat but also included complex traditionally cooked dishes. I think the American paradox, as suggested in Kessler's book and others, is that satisfying food has been crowded out by cravable food. Many people who have been conditioned by cravable food have simply lost the ability to recognize when they aren't hungry any more. The products of the food industry, Kessler demonstrates, make many consumers helpless. Though they often see themselves as victims, they keep eating and overeating, unable to stop.
Kessler uses a number of examples of such individuals who say they just can't stop thinking of some favorite donut, cookie, sandwich, pizza, or other cravable delicacy -- people who engage in what he calls conditioned hypereating. The foods they mention share certain not-very-natural characteristics, Kessler demonstrates in a number of chapters. There's some overlap here with Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss (as I wrote in Who's Rational?) but Kessler emphasizes how people experience the food in real life, while Moss concentrates more on the labs.
It's not just the content, which includes meticulously researched combinations of fat, sugar, and salt. To create a product that people can't stop eating, food labs also engineer the way that the food behaves when it's chewed. A potato chip may begin with a rush of salt and crunchiness, but it quickly melts away in your mouth: cravable food doesn't have too much fiber. A slice of pizza is layered with several flavors that pop and excite your mouth, but can be chewed and swallowed easily, allowing you to take another bite, another bite, another bite. Cravable meat dishes use tenderized or ground meat that requires minimal chewing compared to a real steak. A Cinnabon roll has a super appealing aroma and sweet spiciness, along with a creamy frosting that provides just the right mouth feel along with the flavor.
Kessler talked to the food engineers whose research has provided Americans (and those to whom we export) with the perfect cravable foods, and he talked to their victims who couldn't stop. He provided statistics about how very young children studied in the past seemed able to keep eating until they had had enough to grow normally, and even how their food choices were balanced to match their needs. Recent research, he pointed out, suggests that this is changing: the engineered foods (like MacDonalds) hijack this innate ability, so children lose the capacity to know when to stop eating.
Kessler mentions the French Paradox: why French people don't seem to get fat in the same statistical sense that Americans do -- or at least why that hasn't happened yet. As I read the book, though, just after my recent trip to Paris, I was struck by Kessler's category of satisfying foods: those that one eats with great pleasure, but that don't trigger the hypereating that he discusses. Satisfying food -- highly satisfying food -- is what's on the menu in the traditional homes, restaurants, bistros, cafes, and brasseries where I ate in France. Is that what most young French people are eating now? Maybe not. Maybe the French paradox will dissolve as their food industry catches up with ours and discovers how to make much more money with fat, sugar, salt, and engineered textures.