Regulation

The Peril of Palatability

A former FDA chief sounds the alarm about dangerously delicious food.

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The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Diet, by David A. Kessler, Emmaus, Pa.: Rodale Books, 320 pages, $25.95

According to The Washington Post, David Kessler's research for The End of Overeating included late-night forays into the trash bins behind Chili's restaurants across California. From the chain's garbage he retrieved ingredient boxes with nutritional labels that revealed the secret of dishes such as Southwestern Eggrolls and Boneless Shanghai Wings. It turned out they "were bathed in salt, fat and sugars."

Kessler could have saved considerable time and trouble 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 company'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. But as The End of Overeating more than amply demonstrates, Kessler is the sort of crusader who spares no effort to uncover the obvious.

Kessler, a professor at the University of California at San Francisco's medical school, grabbed headlines as head of the Food and Drug Administration under Bill Clinton by taking on Big Tobacco. In this book he mounts an assault on Big Food, but the results are even feebler than his unsuccessful effort to regulate cigarettes without statutory authority. He combines banal observations, dressed up as scientific insights and revelations of corporate misdeeds, with presumptuous advice that overgeneralizes from his own troubled relationship with food. 

Kessler urges readers to eschew pasta, French fries, bacon cheeseburgers, candy, and other "hyperpalatable" foods that he and some people he interviewed for the book have trouble consuming in moderation. Kessler wants us to know he is powerless over chocolate-chip cookies and "those fried dumplings at the San Francisco airport." Using himself and several similarly voracious acquaintances as models, he argues that "conditioned hypereating" is largely responsible for the "obesity epidemic." He exhorts its victims to resist the machinations of the food industry, "the manipulator of the consumers' minds and desires" (in the words of a "high-level food industry executive").

Kessler fearlessly accuses major restaurant chains of a crime they brag about, relying on unnamed "insiders" to reveal that comestible pushers such as Cinnabon and The Cheesecake Factory deliberately make their food delicious—or, as he breathlessly puts it, "design food specifically to be highly hedonic." Kessler certainly has the goods on the corporate conspiracy to serve people food they like. "We come up with craveable flavors, and the consumers come back, even days later," a "research chef at Chili's" confesses to him. Kessler also reveals that Nabisco lures Oreo eaters through a dastardly combination of sweet white filling and crunchy, bittersweet chocolate wafers, achieving "what's called dynamic contrast." Or maybe it's "what the industry calls 'dynamic novelty,'?" as Kessler claims in another Oreo discussion elsewhere in the book. Either way, it's so good it must be bad.

Not only do these sneaky bastards create irresistible food; they then turn around and tell people about it. "With its ability to create superstimuli, coupled with its marketing prowess, the industry has cracked the code of conditioned hypereating and learned exactly how to manipulate our eating behavior," Kessler writes. "It has figured out the programming that gets us to pursue the food it wants to sell." 

If Kessler hadn't been so distracted by that plateful of chocolate-chip cookies, perhaps he would have noticed the contradiction between his description of how the food industry goes to great lengths to give consumers exactly what they want and his claim that it arbitrarily decides what products it wants to sell, then uses marketing magic to create a demand for them. The only way to deal with such logic-defying nefariousness, he suggests, is to regulate advertising and require restaurants to nag their customers with conspicuous calorie counts. He also encourages readers to "feel angry at the marketing and advertising techniques designed to get you to eat more, at the huge portion sizes served at restaurants, and at the layered and loaded food you encounter everywhere." It's all about "reframing seemingly well-meaning acts as hostile ones." Thinking back on all those times my mother offered me a second helping, I now realize how much she hates me.

Kessler's discussion of the science behind his theory of conditioned hypereating is at least as enlightening as his economic analysis of the food industry. "Palatable foods arouse our appetite," one expert tells him. "They act as an incentive to eat." Once he's made sure we know what palatable means, Kessler tries to explain why some foods have this quality. It turns out that palatable foods affect neurotransmitter levels, stimulate "the pleasure center," and activate "the body's reward system." Since the same could be said of pretty much everything that people enjoy, this observation is not very illuminating. It falls into the same true-but-dull category as Kessler's discovery that "people get fat because they eat more than people who are lean."

Kessler's neurological reductionism gives him an excuse to talk about rat studies and MRI scans, but it does not have much explanatory power. "The food we ate for comfort has left its mark on the brain, creating a void that will need to be filled the next time we are cued," he writes. "The result is a spiral of wanting." Since all experiences leave a "mark on the brain," what does this really tell us about why some people eat a few potato chips and stop, while others finish the bag and look for more in the cupboard?

It's not clear what percentage of the population reacts to food the way Kessler and his hypereating friends do. The government says two-thirds of Americans are "overweight," but that does not mean they routinely engage in the out-of-control gorging that Kessler describes. Then again, Kessler says "overeating is not the sole province of the overweight," since thin people can scarf down big bowls of ice cream or M&Ms but compensate by exercising more. It does not make much sense to claim that people who burn all the calories they consume are overeating—unless, like Kessler, you're promoting a trademarked treatment for overeating called Food Rehab™.

According to The Washington Post, "Kessler estimates that about 15 percent of the population is not affected" by conditioned hypereating, meaning 85 percent is. That seems inconsistent not only with everyday experience but with Kessler's own analysis of questionnaire data from the Reno Diet Heart Study. He says "one-third of the study population scored high" on one or more of three factors—"loss of control over eating," "lack of feeling satisfied by food," and "preoccupation with food"—that characterize the syndrome he typifies.

Yet the section of the book where Kessler describes his Food Rehab™ method seems to be aimed at a general audience, which is like expecting all drinkers to follow the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. "I don't offer a one-size-fits-all technique," Kessler claims, adding that "few foods will be totally out of bounds." Yet he lays down some pretty categorical-sounding imperatives. "Neither sugar nor refined carbohydrates that behave much like sugar in the body, such as white flours and pasta, belong in the diet in significant amounts," he writes, calling for "a diet based largely on lean protein and whole grains or legumes, supplemented with fruits and nonstarchy vegetables." For everyone? Just for hypereaters? Maybe both, because by this point Kessler seems to have convinced himself that his impulsive, gluttonous reaction to tasty food is a universal trait.

But what about those of us who reject Kessler's ethic of rigidly ordered abstemiousness, which replaces hypereating with hypervigilance? Consider celebrity chef and food writer Anthony Bourdain, who supplied a blurb for this book ("disturbing, thought-provoking, and important") that suggests he hasn't read it. As anyone who watches No Reservations, Bourdain's show on the Travel Channel, can attest, his attitude toward food is about as far from Kessler's as it's possible to get. While Kessler says we should be wary of delicious dishes, Bourdain conspicuously consumes all manner of fatty, salty, calorie-packed food in large quantities without apology (and nevertheless keeps a trim figure). Bourdain's fans see a man who relishes life and refuses to sacrifice pleasure on the altar of health. Kessler presumably would see a victim of conditioned hypereating who desperately needs a course of Food Rehab™.

Senior Editor Jacob Sullum (jsullum@reason.com) is a nationally syndicated columnist.