David Kessler Goes Dumpster Diving (and Emerges With Garbage)


In recent years, The Washington Post reports, former FDA Commissioner David Kessler was fired from his position as dean of the University of California at San Francisco's medical school, and he started dumpster diving. Kessler, who is still a professor at UCSF, was not living on the street after losing his job. The truth is more embarrassing: He was looking for the secret behind signature Chili's dishes such as Southwestern Eggrolls and Boneless Shanghai Wings. After many late-night forays into the garbage behind Chili's locations across California, Kessler emerged with his prize: nutritional labels on ingredient boxes indicating that the chain's offerings "were bathed in salt, fat and sugars." Kessler could have saved considerable time and effort by paying a Chili's employee to write down this information for him. Or by visiting the Chili's website, which provides numbers for the calories, fat, saturated fat, carbohydrates, protein, fiber, and sodium in the chain's food. Or simply by assuming that food promoted as a mouth-watering yet affordable indulgence probably has a lot of fat, salt, and sugar in it.

Since Kessler considers that fact a revelation, it's not surprising that he also thinks he is breaking new ground by pointing out in his new book, The End of Overeating, that tasty food affects brain chemicals associated with pleasure. Although that is true of everything that people enjoy, Kessler thinks it's the key to understanding why his weight "has swung from 160 pounds to 230 pounds and back, many times over"; why his refrigerator in college was filled with Entenmann's snack cakes; and why he was "helpless when confronted with a plate of chocolate chip cookies," to the point where "he couldn't focus on anything else until he had eaten them all." And this is not just Kessler's problem: He claims 85 percent of the population is unable to resist "highly palatable" foods, and the restaurant industry takes advantage of this weakness by sneakily selling people things they like to eat. "The food the industry is selling is much more powerful than we realized," he says. The only way to escape this overwhelming temptation, he thinks, is to imitate him by swearing off French fries and starting to think of heretofore appealing dishes as "disgusting."

Like many "public health" types these days, Kessler, whose brazen attempt to regulate cigarettes without statutory authority was rejected by the Supreme Court, has turned his attention from Big Tobacco to Big Food. But is he right that only 15 percent of Americans are capable of eating just a few cookies off a plate or of saying no to a Big Mouth Burger? While enjoying delicious food is a widely shared human characteristic, and while many of us have struggled to lose weight, the compulsive consumption and wild yo-yoing he describes (over a 70-pound range) are much less common. "The challenge," he tells the Post, "is how do we explain to America what's going on—how do we break through and help people understand how their brains have been captured?" I think the challenge might actually be how to explain to David Kessler that he may be overgeneralizing from his own troubled relationship with food.

Here I discuss the attempt to portray politically incorrect foods as irresistibly addictive. Here is my analysis of the War on Fat. Here is my story about the Center for Science in the Public Interest, whose founder and executive director, Michael Jacobson, shares Kessler's tendency to convert personal preferences into universal prescriptions.

[Thanks to Brandon Payne for the tip.]