August 25, 2010

Exposing the role of the food industry in conditioning us to overeat, but calling on individuals to change?

Jesse Kurtz-Nicholl

Jesse Kurtz-Nicholl

Research Assistant

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

Book Review:  The end of overeating.  By David Kessler, MD

David Kessler the former FDA Chief under George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton has written a very important book in the evolution of public thinking about food,images nutrition and the obesity epidemic that is gripping our nation.  The basic premise of this book is that the triad of fat, sugar and salt used by the food industry through sophisticated layering techniques are hitting the neuro-chemical, evolutionarily sensitive portion of our brain leaving some of us battling what he calls, conditioned hypereating.  It is a fascinating look into the science of our own brain and yet the book is digestible for the average American.  I found myself throughout the book linking his explanations to real life experiences that I have had with food, and I think most Americans that wade through our current food environment will have similar experiences.

Kessler seems to be laying the ground work for claims that hyper-palatable foods make by fast food chains and the industrialized processed food system are addictive.  There is science behind the idea of compulsive eating as an addictive behavior, but I think the science is not fully there concerning the link between industry’s use of fat, sugar and salt and those addictive behaviors.  However, I think even getting the idea out there to the public that the food companies are targeting consumers with these techniques and not for simple manufacturing or efficiency reasons, but really to target the consumer with little to no regard for the health of the nation could be a stepping stone towards a sort of “Truth” campaign against Big Food.

What I found disappointing about the book came in the way he addressed what should be done with all of this new revelatory information.  One of our jobs in Public Health is to combat the idea that the responsibility for the solution of the obesity epidemic lies solely with the individual.  That is the rhetoric of the food and beverage industry.  They want us to absolve them of any responsibility because it’s your “choice” in deciding what to eat, and it’s your “fault” if you can’t control what you eat.  What Kessler does, magnificently, is turn that argument on its head, revealing the true intentions of the food industry and exposing the industry for its “puppet-master” role in attempting to hit all our craveable taste points with no regard for its impact.  However, after exposing the industry throughout the book, Kessler still comes back to putting the onus for change on the individual.  He spends pages documented plans and ways for individuals to deal with these conditioned responses, but gives only lip service to regulations like menu-labeling, new nutritional labeling and public health educational campaigns.  He should know that these educational expansions of information for the consumer, while incredibly necessary, won’t convince a conditioned American who is being pulled by the layering of fat, sugar and salt.  It is definitely part of the solution, but it’s not enough.

He references the anti-tobacco movement in supporting his view that attitudes are what changes these types of issues.  He writes, “That’s what happened with tobacco – the attitudes that created the social acceptability of smoking shifted, and many of us began to see smoking as deviant, and even repulsive, behavior…. A change in perspective cannot be imposed with mandates, but must evolve as a social consensus.”  I am skeptical of myself for even challenging someone who was intimately involved in the tobacco wars, but I think Kessler discounts the journey that the anti-tobacco movement had to travel, from getting cigarettes off of television in 1971 to the tobacco tax movement of the 80’s and 90’s, to the regulation of smoke-free public spaces that continues today.  This change did not occur without taxes and regulation and yet he doesn’t call for those steps to be taken in this case.  It isn’t just that people changed their attitudes about smoking, it is also that cigarettes are $14.50 a pack in New York City.

If Kessler really believes that conditioned hypereating is not the fault of the individual, even if it is that person’s responsibility to deal with it, why does he not champion a public health regulatory route of limiting the amount of salt, which has strong science behind it, and soft drink taxes, which also show a strong scientific link between their consumption and obesity.

With all of those criticisms, I think the book was an engaging read, and I highly recommend reading it to further understand how the food companies are attempting to control us.  You won’t look at those aisles in the supermarket or a chain restaurant the same again, let alone a chicken strip.

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