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Monday, June 1, 2009

Top 10 Ways the Restaurant Industry is Hijacking Your Brain

Is the food industry taking its cues from the tobacco industry?

From the book The End of Overeating by David A. Kessler, a Rodale Inc. publication

In the 21st century, the food industry is creating and marketing unhealthy food in much the same way that tobacco companies manufactured and sold cigarettes in the 20th century. David Kessler, M.D., the dynamic and controversial head of the FDA who took on big tobacco in the 1990s, now takes on the food industry in The End of Overeating.

Overeating doesn’t only affect people who are overweight. In fact, more than 70 million Americans have become conditioned to overeat, and it affects people of all different weights. Dr. Kessler pulls back the curtain to reveal how the food industry and its scientists really operate.

1. Most of the foods served at restaurants combine tempting amounts of sugar, fat, and salt. They are either loaded onto a core ingredient (such as meat, vegetable, potato, or bread), layered on top of it, or both. For instance:

  • Potato skins: The potato is hollowed out and the skin is fried, which provides a substantial surface area for “fat pickup.” Then some combination of bacon bits, sour cream, and cheese is added. The result: fat on fat on fat on fat, loaded with salt.
  • Buffalo wings: The fatty parts of a chicken get deep-fried. Then they are served with creamy or sweet dipping sauce that’s heavily salted. Usually they’re par-fried at a production plant, then fried again at the restaurant, which doubles the fat. The result: sugar on salt on fat on fat on fat.
  • Spinach dip: The spinach provides little more than color—a high-fat, high-salt dairy product is the main ingredient. The result: a tasty dish of salt on fat.
2. Conditioning our brains. Food scientists create “hyperpalatable” foods. These foods stimulate the appetite and prompt us to eat more even after we’re full. These foods layer sugar, fat, and salt in optimal amounts in a way that conditions our brains to eat more and more. Instead of satisfying our hunger, we are setting ourselves up to crave them again.

3. The food industry develops “fun foods.” By creating hyperpalatable foods that are entertaining, widely available and socially acceptable, the food industry contributes to this vicious cycle. Millions of Americans report loss of control in the face of food, lack of feeling satisfied, and a preoccupation with these foods.

4. The food industry creates “adult baby food.” Fun food literally melts in your mouth: by eliminating the need to chew, modern food processing techniques allow us to eat faster and consume more calories. Processing meat and produce—a techniques employed by many restaurant chains and food manufacturers—creates a kind of “adult baby food.” The harder-to-chew-elements—such as fiber and gristle—are removed. The result is food that can be eaten quickly, and without much effort.

5. Faster consumption and cost-saving steps. Consider Chili’s boneless Shanghai chicken wings: A food designer says that about them, “taking it off the bone is like taking the husk off the nut.” That processing step reduces the need for chewing, making the food faster to consume. The wings contain a solution of up to 25 percent water, hydrolyzed soy protein, salt, and sodium phosphate. The water is there to bulk up the chicken—the industry calls this “reducing shrinkage.” Water is also cheaper than chicken breast, so it’s less costly to produce. And finally, water makes the food softer and chewing easier.

6. "When in doubt, throw cheese and bacon on it” is a standard joke in the world of chain restaurants. But it works. Along with enhancing melt and making food easy to eat, these layers are cheaper to produce than the central ingredient (such as meat or fish) they flavor. They’re also visually appealing, straightforward, and familiar. Example: T.G.I. Friday’s Parmesan-Crusted Sicilian Quesadilla, is described on the menu as follows: “Packed with sautéed chicken, sausage, bruschettta marinara, [and] bacon and oozing with Monterey Jack cheese. We coat it with Parmesan and pan-fry it to a crispy, golden brown, then drizzle it with balsamic glaze.”

7. Food is assembled, not actually cooked, in chain restaurant kitchens. These restaurants make use of “individually quick frozen” foods. Shrimp, potatoes, and chicken nuggets are blasted with cold air, cold nitrogen, or cold carbon dioxide as they travel along a conveyor belt so they freeze in discrete pieces. They are often partially fried before they are quick-frozen. Then they are plunged, straight from the package and still frozen, back into fat for a second frying.

8. Think you’re eating healthy when you order grilled, marinated chicken? Think again. A common way to get marinade into meat is through needle injection. Hundreds of needles are used to pierce the meat, tearing up the connective tissue, to add solutions of salt, sugar, and fat. These injections not only increase flavor, but they also make the meat fall apart in our mouths.

9. Sugar by another name. If a food containes more sugar than any other ingredient, federal regulations dictate that sugar be listed first on the label. So, to trick health-conscious mothers who scan food labels for the word "sugar," manufacturers hide the amount of sugar by listing its different sources separately, pushing each down the list. Breakfast cereal, for example, often includes some combination of sugar, brown sugar, fructose, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, and molasses—each listed separately.

10. Creative chemistry. Chemical processing evolved to extend the shelf life of products and to lower food costs. More recently, the industry has directed its creative chemistry toward increasing sensations like “mouth feel” and finding new ways to artificially simulate real flavors using flavor enhancers. It’s all about creating novelty and impact.

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