How Our Food Has Become a Dangerous Addiction

In a new book, “Industrial Diet” Anthony Winson writes about the evolving story of the degradation of our food and the rise of “pseudo foods.”

The following is excerpt from The Industrial Diet: The Degradation of Food and the Struggle for Healthy Eating by Anthony Winson (NYU Press).

In many of the food environments we encounter on a day-to-day basis, it is becoming difficult to find whole foods in anything like their natural form. Healthy nuts are rendered unhealthy by prodigious amounts of added salt and sweet “honey” glazes. Yoghurt is laced with copious amounts of sugar or high-fructose corn syrup sweetener, typically the equivalent of seven teaspoons of sugar in a small serving size. Even plain oatmeal, a basic food that nourished generations of Scots and Irish in the hard times of centuries past, is now often packaged with surprising amounts of sugar and salt. What is happening, and how do we account for it?

The evolving story of the degradation of our food environments in industrial dietary regimes would be incomplete without examining one other “master process.” In addition to the simplification of food environments and the speed-up in the complex mechanisms for producing food, we must add a further process that has become the sine qua non of the manufactured edible products that constitute the industrial diet. I refer to this as the process of macro-adulteration and examine how this process is different from the age-old practices of adulteration.

As with the processes of speed-up and simplification, macro-adulteration is one that very much reflects the fundamental pressures of a market-driven, rather than nutrition-driven, food economy. The edible products made possible by macro-adulterants have benefits to retailers, processors, and consumers. But they also have very significant costs, costs that are principally borne by the consuming public. The cost is chiefly to health. Three key macro-adulterants underlie the American diet: sweeteners, fats (primarily trans fats), and salt. …

Adulteration Today: Contemporary Ways to Degrade Diets

The issue of adulteration of whole foods was a serious issue in earlier times. Present governments regularly proclaim that our food system produces safe and healthy foods, but is that truly the case? Is adulteration a thing of our unregulated past? Much of the old-style adulteration has been dealt with by regulatory measures, including penalties to those who transgress, brought in by governments over the last one hundred years.

Old-style adulteration still exists, of course. It may take the relatively innocuous form of the retailer selling water-logged ground beef, or chicken meat injected with a saline solution, in order to gain extra profits from a commodity sold by the pound. With the globalization of markets in the neo-liberal era we now live in, however, it may take on more sinister forms.

A notable example came to light by 2008 and involved the widespread adulteration practices by Chinese food processors who were lacing dairy products and pet foods with the chemical melamine. In the case of dairy products, this was done to boost the apparent protein content of watered-down milk products. The adulteration of infant formula in this way led to the hospitalization of some fifty thousand infants in China and several deaths, while the melamine in pet foods led to an epidemic of illness and deaths of dogs and cats in the United States. Because of the globalization of our food system, this adulteration had effects far beyond China, contaminating food environments in Southeast Asia, the United States, and elsewhere.

There is another form of adulteration, however, that I believe is of more concern to the majority of people, particularly in the more economically developed countries. Manufacturers do carry out a form of adulteration of foods and beverages, although rarely with acutely toxic poisons as they once did. It is done at a massive scale and affects very large sectors of the population, to the point that few of us are unaffected. This adulteration has serious and widespread health consequences and deserves much more attention than it receives.

The adulterants, which I call macro-adulterants, for the most part are constituted by a few seemingly innocuous ingredients, principally sweeteners, fats, and salt. But in the quantities in which they are found in a broad array of processed edible commodities, these macro-adulterants add up in our diet, and their impact is hardly innocuous. Adulteration is a matter that is inherently politically sensitive, not only because of the possibility of injury for the consumer but also because of the vested interests affected by attempts to curtail it. Coley notes that the chemist Accum, who pioneered work on food adulteration in England in the early nineteenth century, made powerful enemies when he chose to publish the names of merchants convicted by the courts of adulterating foods.

Those enemies may have been involved in the authorities’ bringing charges against him for allegedly damaging library books, and ending his career as an unofficial food policeman of the early nineteenth century. I noted earlier how the cereal-milling interests in the United States had attacked those who questioned the nutritional quality of their products, including its adulteration with chemical bleaches. They were willing to pursue such matters all the way to the Supreme Court when they felt it necessary to protect their interests. The practices of macro-adulteration today are very likely to be as politically charged as was adulteration in times past.

Why Are There Macro-Adulterants?

Whole foods are regularly adulterated with sugar, fat, and salt in the process of manufacturing edible products for fairly basic reasons. They make food more durable, palatable, and easier to handle and therefore help boost sales and reduce costs to processors and retailers. There are other reasons, but these three explain a fair bit. The benefits, real and perceived, are not just for processors and retailers either, although they are the principal beneficiaries.

Consumers also perceive benefits as well, and to suggest they do not would be unfair. Consumers may perceive they get a deal by giving food more durability – rendering it more shelf-stable, in other words. Such products may be perceived to have added convenience in that they will last on the shelf for a considerable period without spoiling. Some macro-adulterants help create more palatable and easier-to-handle products, such as the hydrogenated oils used in peanut butter to produce a homogenized product that resists separation of the oil and solid matter, which would otherwise occur.

One can argue that they make cheap edible commodities possible and thereby reduce cost-of-living expenses for many who choose to buy such products, whether they be processed soup, breakfast cereals, cookies and crackers, or fast-food fare. Macro-adulterants reduce the costs to processors and retailers that would come with spoiled food and have made possible a plethora of edible commodities that have been sufficiently profitable to make some food-processing companies global giants in this sphere of the economy. The use of salt and sugar for their preservative qualities is nothing new, but in the era of indus- trial convenience foods, powerful economies of scale were to be had in concentrating production in large, highly automated factories.

This, however, necessitated the transporting of product over long distances and the warehousing of product for periods that were not always easy to predict. The need for shelf-stable product that would not spoil for considerable periods was paramount in this system, in other words. Another essential role of the macro-adulterants sugar, fat, and salt in the highly competitive profit-driven food industry is to enhance the desirability, or palatability, of the product. That food processors want to make their prod- ucts appetizing to the broadest range of consumers is something that anyone can understand. However, with population-wide weight gains across societies happening so rapidly, serious questions are finally being asked about diets, and in particular, just what is in our (processed) food?

We might also ask why it is that the foods the processing industry transforms needs so much of these macro-adulterants to make them palatable in the first place. The snack food industry, for example, is known for its product claims along the lines of “You won’t be able to eat just one!” In a culture of over-blown advertising claims, it is almost remarkable that this kind would seem to have a good deal of truth to it. Few among us have not heard someone remark that is it hard not to keep eating snack product X or Y once the bag or box is open. Many of us might have made this remark ourselves.

We are beginning to understand what food technologists and scientists must have understood for some time now: many edible products can be designed to have qualities that produce what quickly becomes an addictive eating behaviour among those who consume them. I use the word “designed” here on purpose because what happens at the processing plant goes far beyond what nature provides us in what some are calling “whole foods.” And it is not just snack products in a bag or box that have these qualities but a wide variety of processed edible commodities found in the supermarket, and also products served by restaurant chains of various kinds as well.

Pseudo Foods and the Supermarket

My use of the term “adulteration” differs somewhat from its use by food and health authorities. For me, the process of macro-adulteration is intimately linked up with the appearance and rapid expansion of edible products that I have argued elsewhere can be usefully labelled as “pseudo foods.” This is a broad category of edible products that have sugar, fat, and salt as their main ingredients and which are generally considered by nutritional scientists to be nutrient-poor.

For some time, nutritionists and public health authorities had been warning of the disturbing trend toward increased fast-food consumption and the popularity of what they, and indeed most of us, call “junk foods.” Spurred by the growing evidence of population-wide weight gain in a host of developed countries over a relatively recent span of time, and the relative inability of medical and nutritional science to adequately account for it, some years ago I began explorations of a few key food environments in the first years of the new millennia.

Given their salience in the lives of most people today, I chose to examine the supermarket chain store and school food environments. Taking a new critical eye to the content of supermarkets, and the forms of marketing that have evolved there, I was impressed with both the prominence of what most of us understand as junk foods in the supermarket food environment and the sheer volume of physical space they typically occupy there. Soft drinks and related beverages generally took up one entire aisle in the typical supermarket; in many cases, junk-food salty snacks (potato and corn chips, pretzels, and so on) and chocolate bars and related snacks also occupied an entire aisle of their own. Moreover, these junk foods were displayed prominently at a number of other places in the store.

The more time I spent examining supermarket products, the clearer it became to me that many products not conventionally thought of as junk foods were, from any reasonable nutritional standpoint, little better than those edible products we all recognize as junk foods. It seemed essential to capture this extra dimension of what was happening in the supermarket and elsewhere. To this end, I have argued that using the concept of pseudo foods is a useful way to appreciate the significance of this broad range of nutrient- poor edible products that saturates contemporary food environments.

Why Pseudo Foods?

As Marion Nestle has masterfully illustrated in her 2002 book Food Politics, food is an especially politicized dimension of our contemporary world, even though many do not realize it is. Labelling foods, therefore, is to engage in a political act. When mainstream nutritional science argues that there are no inherently good or bad foods (presumably because even so-called junk foods provide energy to the body, if nothing else), it is taking a position that is arguably more political than scientific. I believe this position ultimately leads to much confusion over nutrition for most people and impedes progress to healthier eating.

It may help to get back to basics. The word “food” as a noun has its origins in the Old English word “f_da,” which is of Germanic origin. My Oxford Dictionary of English, which is as good a source on the English language as any, defines food as “any nutritious substance that people or animals eat or drink or that plants absorb in order to maintain life and growth.”

Another popular source, this one digital, defines food as “anything eaten to satisfy appetite and to meet physiological needs for growth, to maintain all body processes, and to supply energy to maintain body temperature and activity.” The issue is, what do we call the growing mass of edible products that do little to “maintain life and growth” or “meet physiological needs for growth” and maintenance of “all body processes,” but in reality, and in the quantities they are being consumed, do exactly the opposite? I refer to a growing proportion of edible products in contemporary food environments that are deleterious to the life-sustaining qualities of real food in that they degrade the health of the human organism, and presumably any other organism that consumes them in sufficient quantities, from dogs and cats to rats.

It was in order to call attention to these nutrient-poor edible products, which are becoming ubiquitous in contemporary food environments, that I have argued for designating them as pseudo foods. Pseudo foods are generally processed edible commodities high in sweeteners and refined carbohydrates, fat, and salt and, other than the overabundance of calories they usually provide, are notably low in fibre and nutrients such as proteins, minerals and vitamins, and micronutrients (trace minerals and phytochemicals) that are essential for health.

Pseudo foods are typically an important component in what has been termed in Britain the “high-fat, -salt, and -sugar (HFSS) foods,” which are the subject of recent legislation that restricts advertising of them to children and youth. Edible products that qualify for the label “pseudo foods” would include many of the juice beverages sold today because of their high sweetener content and absence of the nutrients associated with products made from pure juices. Most of these products are made with less, often much less, than 25 percent pure juice.

In its 2010 Report of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the US Department of Agriculture noted that per person “in 2008, almost two times more fruit drinks, cocktails, and ades (12.9 gallons per person) were available than fruit juice (6.9 gallons)” in the America food system. These compromised juice products constituted the majority of products in the juice category in all the Canadian supermarkets I studied.

I more recently surveyed numerous large supermarkets in cities in central Mexico and found that they typically do not have a single juice product that is 100 percent natural fruit juice. All were adulterated with added sweeteners. Many of the frozen dairy products that are proliferating in supermarkets in recent years would be considered pseudo foods because of their high fat and sugar content and low levels of essential nutrients. Ice cream, the dominant frozen dairy product in supermarkets and one that now occupies much more shelf space than fluid milk, usually has about 50 percent of its calories coming from fat, although some varieties reach 70 percent.

Pseudo foods include high-profile supermarket products such as presweetened breakfast cereals, which typically have four to five teaspoons of sugar per single serving size added to the nutrient-poor refined flours they are made from. When these products are added to the copious quantities of soft drink products, confectionaries, high-sugar and trans fat-laden baked goods, and salty snack products (mostly potato- and corn-chip products), which average 50 percent calories from fat, we are dealing with a very sub- stantial part of the modern supermarket food environment.

If these products were available only in the supermarket, it would be enough cause for concern, but, of course, this is not the case. In fact, they colonize other food environments, from video stores and gas station kiosks to hospitals, schools, and airports – and to a remarkably high degree. The process of what I term the “spatial colonization” of pseudo foods by large edible products manufacturers is a matter I deal with in Chapters 10 and 11. In the schools, adulteration is present in various ways, but one in particular was driven home to me recently when I was asked to comment for a television program on a regional school board’s proposal to ban chocolate milk. I thought I should get better informed about the product, and one of the things I discovered when I checked the sugar content of a popular chocolate milk product I knew to be in the schools in question was that it almost equalled the quantity of sugar in the same serving size of Coca-Cola. It was another example of a pseudo food. I also knew from a survey I had done in these schools a few years earlier that students who drank milk invariably drank the chocolate milk product, and much less frequently plain white milk. The adulteration of milk, in this case, was almost certainly having a significant nutritional impact among many students, in the form of excessive calories

The Rise of Addictive Foods?

Have edible products of various kinds been doctored to make them super- palatable and thereby encourage overeating? With new data showing an astounding 75 percent of adult Americans overweight, and Canadian, Aus- tralians, Britons, and others nationalities in rich countries not that far be- hind, and with evidence of weight gain and obesity becoming a global phenomenon, this is not a question that can be dismissed out of hand any- more. In the course of research on the emerging obesity epidemic embarked on just after the turn of the new millennium, I began exploring literature that examined how certain food additives affected our neurological system. Thanks in part to the valuable help of my research assistant, I was gaining insights into how food technologists and the companies that employ them use additives to enhance the taste and appetite appeal of foods. It was a fas- cinating – and disturbing – area to explore, but various constraints, includ- ing my own lack of training in certain scientific fields, limited progress, and the project was left aside. Fortunately, others have made significant contribu- tions more recently to help us understand some widespread food industry practices.

Among the best-known recent efforts to expose the extensive use of what I would call “adulterants” is that of Eric Schlosser in his well-received book Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal. Notably, Schlosser alerts us to the fact that, in addition to the macro-adulterants I have mentioned, fast-food companies in particular rely on another group of food adulterants, chemical food additives, to make cheaply produced edible products palatable. It was Schlosser who introduced the general public to the international flavour industry, companies such as International Flavors and Fragrances, Givaudan, Haarmann and Reimer, Takasago, Flavor Dynamics, Frutarom, and Elan Chemical, companies that “make processed food palatable.”

As he eloquently argues, the chemical flavouring industry is quite capable of making, and typically is already marketing, chemical products that will faithfully imitate practically any flavour one is likely to find in whole foods, as well as imparting flavours such as smoke that in the past came from time-consuming cooking and curing methods. The point of this industry, according to Schlosser, is to impart tastes to cheaply produced processed edible products so that they may successfully mimic more expensive whole foods. All consumers would like to imagine fresh strawberries being blended into the strawberry milkshakes they order, but fresh or even frozen strawberries are an expensive commodity. The taste they would impart can be had with infinitely less expensive but complex chemical additives, produced by the chemical flavouring industry. In Schlosser’s words,

A typical strawberry flavor, like the kind found in a Burger King strawberry milk shake, contains the following ingredients: amyl acetate, amyl butyrate, amyl valerate, anetol, anisyl formate, benzyl acetate, benzyl isobutyrate, butyric acid, cinnamyl isobutyrate, ci- namyl valerate, cognac essential oil, diacetyl, dipropyl ketone, ethyl acetate, ethyl amylketone, ethyl butyrate, ethyl cinnamate, ethyl heptanoate, ethyl heptylate, ethyl lactate, ethyl methylphenylgly- cidate, ethyl nitrate, ethyl propionate, ethyl valerate, heliotropin, hydroxyphrenyl-2-butanone (10 percent solution in alcohol), ionone, isobutyl anthranilate, isobutyl butyrate, lemon essential oil, malton, 4-methylacetophenone, methuyl anthranilate, methyl ben- zoate, methyl cinamate, methyl heptinecaronate, methyl aphthyl ketone, methyl salicuylate, mint essential oil, neroli essential oil, nerolin, neryl isobutyrate, orris butter, phenethyl alcohol, rose, rum ether, undecalactone, vanillin, and solvent.

These insights into the chemical-flavouring industry help us understand two things: why the fast-food industry is so very profitable (by keeping costs of raw materials down) and, importantly, how inexpensive processed commodities can be made palatable to the human consumer. But there is more to this issue of palatability.

One of the most direct and credible responses to the question posed at the beginning of this section – just what is in our food? – has been given by David Kessler in his 2009 book, The End of Overeating. In this remarkable work, Kessler does a masterful job of synthesizing a wide spectrum of relevant science that shows how what I argue are the main macro-adulterants – sugar, fat, and salt – plus the chemical-flavouring industry examined by Schlosser, play a key role in promoting excess eating of high-calorie processed foods.

Here I am able to only summarize some of the key findings he presents; nevertheless, his arguments complement and extend very nicely my overall analysis. The literature dealing with the factors that make certain foods highly palatable, or brings about, as one article frames it, the “craveability” or intense liking of certain foods, is not well developed.

Despite attempts to quantify the phenomenon, insights into the matter are few and scattered, and largely the preserve of industry insiders. Kessler’s broad-ranging synthesis of insights from these very industry insiders and scientists concerned with bio-chemical and neurological processes governing food and behaviour helps fill this gap. Kessler notes that animal experiments demonstrate the power of sugar and fat to stimulate appetite and motivate behaviour, and that there appears to be an optimal level, or “bliss point” for each macro-adulterant, at which these effects are most enhanced.

Combining macro-adulterants, moreover, enhances the effect over and above what each might have alone. Rats fed their normal diet ate to a certain point and then curtailed their consumption, but when presented with food engineered with extra sugar and fat together, the animals began eating without restraint and become obese. Other experi- ments involved feeding rats with a “supermarket diet” of salami, chocolate chip cookies, sweetened condensed milk, bananas, milk chocolate, and peanut butter. Whereas rats retain their normal weight on their regular bland chow, on this “supermarket diet” they became obese. As Kessler observes, this research suggests that “the biological system that’s designed to maintain energy balance can go awry when animals have easy access to a variety of foods that are high in sugar and fat.” Foods that have the right combination of sugar, fat, and salt, Kessler points out, have a high hedonic value, giving us pleasure. He provides examples of edible processed products available in restaurants in North America, and increasingly globally, to illustrate:

[With] countless new foods … sugar, fat, and salt are either loaded onto a core ingredient (such as meat, vegetable, potato, or bread), layered on top of it, or both … Potato skins [are] fried, which provides a substantial surface area for … “fat pickup.” Then some combination of bacon bits, sour cream, and cheese is added. The result is fat on fat on fat on fat, much of it loaded with salt. Buffalo wings start with the fatty parts of a chicken, which get deep-fried. Then they’re 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 essentially doubles the fat. That gives us sugar on salt on fat on fat on fat

Sugar and fat together have been found in experiments to be reinforcing in that they act to stimulate test animals to eat more than they would without these substances in their food. Animals in experiments were found to work much harder to access foods that have sugar and fat added. Scientists doing research on animals and eating note that rats will work almost as hard for sugar and fat-laden food as they would to access cocaine.

According to Kessler, this experimental research points to the importance of cues, quantity, concentration, and variety. Cues are the locations and events associated with past consumption of palatable foods. The brain chemical believed to be involved in making these cues so potent in stimulating the desire for certain foods is dopamine. Distinct from the pleasure we receive from eating certain foods, dopamine is what motivates our behaviour and steers us toward food: “Cues associated with the pleasure response demand out attention, motivate our behaviour, and stimulate the urge we call ‘wanting’ … With experience, the association between cues and food becomes even stronger … we pursue the food more frequently, and the resulting pleasure leads us to repeat the behaviour. A continuous cycle of cue-urge-reward is set in motion and eventually becomes a habit” (emphasis added).

Quantity becomes an issue with food that has a high hedonic value: evidence from animal studies, for example, indicates that animals are less likely to reach a point of satiety with such foods. The more there is available, the more that is eaten. As for concentration, laboratory animals have been found to consistently favour foods with higher levels of sugar and fat than those with lower levels, at least up to a certain point of concentration – the “bliss point.”

The variety of sensory stimuli influences our desire to eat as well and plays a role in short-circuiting our body’s balance mechanisms. In experiments, test animals fed only one kind of palatable food, such as chocolate, reached a point at which they seemed to become satiated with a taste and stopped eating the food. However, when also offered another food with high hedonic value, such as bananas, providing different taste stimuli, they continued to eat, ingesting even more food.

In the long hunting and gathering era of our Palaeolithic past, during which our genetic makeup was formed, diet was shaped by natural cycles: certain foods came available only at certain times of the year. With the advent of agriculture, diets became even less varied, or so experts on these matters have argued, at least for the vast majority of people. Up until very recent times, it was only the elite who benefited from a varied and abundant diet, and it was typically only they who became obese.

Contrast this with the huge variety of energy-dense processed products available in today’s supermarkets, together with their relative cheapness compared with actual necessities of life, at least in North America. As Kessler observes, food processors have learned to use sensory variety to encourage greater consumption of a wide selection of edible products. Products are now frequently designed to have a variety of flavours and textures to achieve a highly palatable dynamic contrast.

An example here might be a touch of cayenne pepper in sweetened chocolate, a highly palatable combination I was recently offered at a neighbour’s party. And as Kessler argues, “The more potent and multi-sensory foods become, the greater the rewards they may offer and the more we learn to work for them.” I know I certainly went after my host for more of those chocolates, when I wouldn’t have bothered with regular chocolate.

The variety of sensory stimuli available in our food today, along with the extraordinary quantities of it that many can afford, is a phenomenon that is entirely novel in the history of human evolution and one that we are ill-equipped to cope with. Sugar, fat, and salt act on our brain by “amping up,” to use Kessler’s phraseology, the neurons that are the basic cells of the brain. As he notes, it is the sense of taste above all that promotes the strongest emotional response in the brain. The neurons that are stimulated by taste are part of the opioid circuitry: “The ‘opioids,’ also known as endorphins, are chemicals produced in the brain that have rewarding effects similar to those of drugs such as morphine and heroin. Stimulating the opioid circuitry with food drives us to eat.”

In addition to the pleasurable effects they provide, opioids are known to relieve pain and to calm us down and relieve stress. This is what we expect from our favourite “comfort foods,” of course, and these comfort foods are typically products that are formulated with significant amounts of sugar, fat, and salt. There is now evidence, argues Kessler, that the high levels of sugar, fat, and salt in the contemporary American diet act to essentially rewire the biological circuitry of our brains and thereby circumvent our natural ability to achieve energy balance, or homeostasis.

New research supports the thesis of addictive foods and increases our understanding of the mechanisms by which they affect us. The potential for an epidemic of overeating with food environments becoming saturated with products with high hedonic values is certainly there. For population-wide effects to become evident, however, other factors such as mass marketing also need to be taken into account, as well as the spatial colonization of food environments by companies producing such edible products.

Anthony Winson is Professor of Sociology at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. He is the author of Coffee and Democracy in Modern Costa Rica, The Intimate Commodity: Food and the Development of the Agro-Industrial Complex in Canada and Contingent Work, Disrupted Lives: Labour and Community in the New Rural Economy.

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