The weight of Americans has been heading upwards for decades along with the number of calories we eat, which has risen by 24% since 1961 — from 2,881 to 3,600 calories a day.
Yes, we’re eating much more than we did 56 years ago. Why? Well, part of the reason is we’re being conned into doing it. . .keep reading, because this is one heck of story. . .
Foods high in fats, salt and sugars were available well before the 1960s. They’re not new inventions. Yet our parents and grandparents (and our younger selves) didn’t stuff ourselves the way people do now.
Perhaps there is something new in most foods consumed today that was not available in the past. Could this be the missing piece in the obesity puzzle?
If true, this new “mystery factor” in food is a major killer.
Eating our way to cancer
In October, 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) came out with a major report that linked 13 types of cancer to excess weight, and four out of every ten diagnosed cancer cases to being overweight or downright obese.
Now, this was not news to Cancer Defeated readers. It’s been known for a long time that excess weight is a leading cause of cancer. The new study puts more precise numbers to the problem.
On the other side of the pond, a major advertising campaign began at the end of February by a charity called Cancer Research UK. Using radio, social and digital media, and billboards, the British effort features headline “OB-S–Y is a cause of cancer” and underneath, “Guess what is the biggest preventable cause of cancer after smoking.”
So if there is something new and different about food that’s making us eat more, and become obese – well, it might be useful for you to know.
Nobody can eat just one
The compounds I have in mind are added liberally to today’s diet of processed foods. These additives don’t contain any calories themselves, but they make food very tasty and desirable. We probably wouldn’t eat some of these foods if these ingredients were not present.
In his book The Dorito Effect, author Mark Schatzker suggests that we won’t find the cause of obesity in individual ingredients like sugar, carbohydrates and saturated fat alone, no matter how much we relish the foods that contain them.
And genes can’t explain our expanding waistlines over the last half century either, because they couldn’t have changed so much in such a short space of time.
He identifies flavorings as the missing link in the obesity/cancer epidemic because their effects extend well beyond taste alone.
Mr. Schatzker describes flavorings as “emotion expressed in the medium of food.” Understanding the science and psychology of food, food companies use flavorings to give us a heightened sense of pleasure or to cause us to experience particular feelings.
For instance, food technologist Marianne Gillette explains that flavors are created to fit our “need states.”
If creating a new cracker for a health spa, it would be flavored to give a sense of wholeness and understanding. It would need to be “tame, steady, mild and calm.” But for a sports bar it would have to be “wild, active, adventurous, daring, eager and enthusiastic.”
Flavor technology can be used to manipulate areas of the mind that experience feelings. The consequence of playing with our emotions is overeating.
Food acts on the brain
Some foods act on neurotransmitters like pleasure-inducing dopamine, while others can stimulate the orbitofrontal cortex which is involved with decision making. This makes us more likely to say yes to another cookie.
Food can also act on the insula, a brain region involved with emotions and cravings. In brain scans the insula “lights up” when people crave drugs.
Lab rats develop binging and addictive patterns of behavior when fed highly processed foods like Oreo Double Stuf cookies, but not on their normal chow. They are motivated to seek out highly processed foods even where there are negative consequences (electric shock). This type of compulsive behavior is one of the hallmarks of addiction.
Many scientists now take the view that food can be addictive in much the same way as alcohol, cocaine, or other drugs.
The Yale Food Addiction Scale
This inspired the development of the Yale Food Addiction Scale, introduced in 2009 to measure the addictive properties of food.
The most addictive foods are highly processed, and contain sugar, refined carbohydrates, fats, sweet/fat combinations, and/or high amounts of salt.
In a study conducted in 2015, researchers at the University of Michigan and the New York Obesity Research Center found that, among the 504 participants, the six foods rated the most addictive were chocolate, ice cream, French fries, pizza, cookies and chips.
The least addictive food out of the 35 listed were beans, followed by broccoli, cucumber, water, brown rice and carrots. The top ten addictive foods were highly processed, while the 13 foods that made up the bottom of the list were unprocessed and presented the fewest problems.
The most addictive foods also have a high glycemic load. The speed and intensity by which they raise blood sugar causes these foods to act on reward centers in the brain to directly affect cravings.
The highly processed foods that cause addiction all contain flavorings. If you think French fries needn’t contain flavorings, that may be true if you make them from raw potatoes at home, but not if you eat out. McDonalds French fries contain 19 ingredients. Besides dextrose (a sugar) and salt, these include three flavorings: natural beef flavor, hydrolyzed wheat and hydrolyzed milk.
And while the Yale scientists never referenced flavorings in their study, Mr. Schatzker contends that calories, salt, sugar and fat don’t create desire on their own.
Here’s how food is engineered to be addictive
Mr. Schatzker’s most famous example is the one that became the title of his book: Doritos. When this snack food was first introduced in 1964 it was not successful even though Frito-Lay made the chips with carbs, fat and salt.
What turned this failing product into a food industry hit was the addition of flavor.
We don’t crave food constituents. Eating is a behavior driven by the expectation of pleasure. This comes from the flavor of food. “We crave flavors,” Mr. Schatzker writes. “Flavors are what make food seem like food.”
Since addiction is about craving and desire, for the food addict, food never quite lives up to expectations when eaten, and so a further and bigger ‘hit’ is required; calorie intake keeps going up.
Americans have become food junkies, according to Mr. Schatzker. Seven percent have a body mass index consistent with full addiction, “and millions more are using more than they ought to. It looks an awful lot like food has gotten too pleasurable.”
Food is not grown or bred for flavor
Where we find ourselves today can be traced back to the 1920s, but is best exemplified by the national Chicken of Tomorrow contest that began in 1948. The winners would be judged by uniformity of size, breast volume, feed efficiency and hatchability. The sponsors and judges of the contest didn’t even consider taste.
To “create” chickens that became big, really fast, the poultry industry came to focus on a high energy diet and genetically altering livestock, which was done through breeding in those days, rather than finagling DNA in a lab. Today’s broiler grows in less than half the time and weighs more on a third less feed than the fastest growing chickens of 1948.
Similar changes have been seen in other livestock as well as in grains, fruits and vegetables. But there’s a price to pay when breeding or growing for size, yield, appearance, transportability and shelf life.
The resulting product has little or no flavor. This is plainly seen in what I call “supermarket tomatoes” and much other produce. But it’s equally true of many other types of food you’d never imagine.
Food became bland, with chicken being a notable example. Chef Julia Child in her 1961 cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, described chicken as tasting like the stuffing inside a teddy bear. Already by that time, the flavour had been bred out of the birds.
Mr. Schatzker managed to find and eat some of the older breeds, and testifies that the difference in flavor – the natural kind – is amazing.
But since intensive farming could not be turned back, the answer to insipid food had to come from food scientists. And so the flavor industry was born.
Technological advances in the mid-1950s allowed scientists to isolate the chemicals in food that we experience as flavor.
By 1965, over 600 had been identified. Today this has grown to more than 2,200, and they can be combined into almost endless combinations to provide us with the flavors and emotional sensations we find desirable.
Making food more palatable
In the livestock industry, animals are fattened up quickly with “concentrates” – high calorie feed. If they aren’t killed young they become obese, just like humans.
But you can’t always induce young animals to eat. For this, the farmer has another strategy – palatants. These little packets of powder are added to milk replacer or mixed in their feed. Then the animals dive in. Palatants are flavorings specifically created to get animals to eat more and grow faster.
If the farmer can take weeks off the amount of time it takes to grow an animal big enough to slaughter, it’s money in the bank for him.
In a study with sheep, palatants increased hay consumption by 15%. The food additive did so by fooling the sheep into believing they were consuming mother’s milk, not mere hay. It was all done with a chemical out of a lab.
The same effect was seen in goats and rats. They ate more when their food was sprayed with different flavors to give it a false sense of taste and variety.
Can humans be stimulated the same way? The tobacco industry certainly believes so. Cigarette companies use flavorings by the bucketful to increase desire.
Food is following the same model as cigarettes
Of the 145 ingredients listed in cigarettes by one company, 131 are flavors. According to an industry newsletter, flavorings “make the product sell better.”
The flavorings are there to act on smokers’ emotions, creating feelings that seem familiar, natural and wholesome. The result is that smokers consume more nicotine, the powerful addictive substance.
Mr. Schatzker believes “food is following the identical model.”
This can be seen along any aisle in the supermarket. Strawberry yogurt that contains no strawberries, only the intense flavor of the fruit along with lots of sugar and calories. Grape juice that contains almost no grapes, only chemical grape flavor plus a generous helping of high fructose corn syrup – more calories.
And almost none of the priceless nutrients that exist in real grapes.
Humans seek out variety to ensure we get a diverse diet. But lab-created flavors shortchange us. The brain is tricked into believing we are getting a varied diet when in reality it’s a uniform one.
And even when we eat food we think of as wholesome, it is either pre-flavored before we buy it, or we have to coat it with fatty and calorific dressings, sauces, gravy, toppings, or batter to supply the flavor the underlying food lacks.
The availability of foods and drinks containing flavorings has continued to rise to the point where each adult and child consumes two pounds of chemical deception each year. Two pounds is an enormous amount, because it literally takes just a drops of these intense chemicals to flavor an entire dish.
Flavorings push our pleasure buttons, leading us to overeat and become obese. But that is only one part of the story, because intensive agriculture not only produces bland food that has to be jazzed up with extra ingredients, but the flavorless food also lacks precious nutrients. Flavorings and depleted nutrition go hand in hand to cause obesity and increase the risk of cancer.
We’ll look closely at this connection in the next edition.