Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Demonizing the Food Industry

The Nefarious Scientists of the Food Industry are at Fault

David Kessler MD found himself "powerless to control his own eating" and saw his weight fluctuating between slim and obese. He set out to discover the reason and learned that the "food industry has been able to figure out the bliss point", they have found a way to "activate the neuro-circuits" that make us eat. And so he has written a book The End of Overeating to rally us to do something about this -- WE must stop THEM. It seems that the food industry is no different than the tobacco industry.

At least that is the message I got from a segment on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer that aired yesterday, Jun6 16, 2009 (listen to the segment here). The segment features correspondent Betty Ann Bowser speaking with and exploring a mall food court with David Kessler.

Here is an excerpt from what he says on the show: "If we continue to allow the food industry to put fat, sugar and salt on every corner, to load it in our food, to be double-frying our food, to be injecting it with needles, to be bathing it in solutions of sugar and fat, to be pre-digesting that food, adding the emotional gloss, advertising, cueing us, stimulating the brains of millions of Americans, we're never going to be able to get a handle on healthcare and especially the cost of healthcare"

Dr. Kessler must know what he's talking about, as he has quite a pedigree. He served as Commissioner of the U. S. Food and Drug Administration under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Dr. Kessler, a pediatrician, has been the dean of the medical schools at Yale and the University of California, San Francisco.

And yet, this demonization of the food industry doesn't sit well with me.

A Different Take
I find myself much more attracted to the analysis and perspective of Seth Roberts, in his book The Shangri-La Diet. (Coincidentally I had just written about the diet in my previous post). Here is a summary of what he says:

What caused the obesity epidemic? ... What was it? Too little exercise, high-fat foods, soft drinks, and too-large portions are often blamed, but so are many other things. In Food Fight(2004), Kelly Brownell and Katherine Horgen point to several causes: television, video games, personal computers, eating away from home, snacking and the “glorification of overeating.” However, the evidence for most of these causes has been far from persuasive.

The sharp rise in obesity after 1980 is unlikely to be due to lack of exercise. [explanation ... Americans weren’t particularly fit before] ... The obesity epidemic is unlikely to be due to a high-fat diet. [explanation ... low-fat diets don’t make much difference] The obesity epidemic is unlikely to be due to larger portions [explanations ... larger portions as a result of obesity, not vice versa].

So what did cause the obesity epidemic? The theory behind the Shangri-La diet is very clear. The most fattening foods are those that have all four of the following properties:
• [a strong flavor]
• [quickly detected calories, for example carbs]
• [are eaten frequently]
• [have exactly the same flavor each time]

Might the consumption of such foods have greatly increased after 1980s? [that’s when obesity epidemic took off]

Junk food and fast food have these four properties; in fact they have been engineered to have them. ... Has consumption of these foods grown dramatically since 1980? The answer is yes. ... “As much as two-thirds of the increase in adult obesity since 1980 can be explained by the rapid growth in the per capita number of fast-food restaurants and full-service restaurants, especially the former.”

Like David Kessler, Seth points out that these foods that are causing the obesity epidemic have been "engineered" to be attractive. But, then they differ: "In the battle against obesity, big food companies are not the enemy, as many public health advocates seem to think. This belief is counterproductive and unfair."

He goes on to give several examples of the food companies responding with alacrity to the public's demands. We want no sugar, they'll get rid of sugar. We want low-fat, they'll make low-fat foods. We want low-carb, they'll give us low-carb.

Instead of demonizing, Seth concludes with a much more optimistic and productive prediction: "When creative and resourceful people have the right ideas about the causes of obesity, they will begin to change our world in ways that make it much harder to become obese."


Bernard said...

Rajiv, did you read Kessler's book? He talks with several people in the food industry and it's clear they spend time trying to make food more attractive and appealing in ways that appear to alter our brain chemistry. He also cites research that shows our brain's reaction to certain foods is similar to what it would look like for cocaine.

You may also check out the book Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes. Part of what this covers is how the hypothesis that fatty foods are bad was not scientifically proven (I think this was in the 60s) and yet people we encouraged away from foods containing fat and then moved towards foods with high carbohydrates. This was before the sharp increase in type 2 diabetes, that seems at least partially due to the changes in what people eat.

As a society we need to figure out how to reduce this problem. The estimates for the growth in diabetes alone is staggering, even if you assume it's only half as bad as the predictions say. Otherwise overeating and bad food choices will be a disaster for all of us within the next few decades. The PDF of the article Global Burden of Diabetes, 1995-2025 is enlightening if frightening reading.

Rajiv Mehta said...

Bernard — Thanks for your comment. Yes, I did read Kessler's book, and on the whole I thought it was very good. It's not his facts I'm disagreeing with, but rather the framing of us vs them. In terms of giving people advice on what to eat, I like Michael Pollan's summary "Eat food; Not too much; Mostly plants". His book "In Defense of Food" explains what he means.

The rise in the number of people diagnosed with various conditions, including diabetes, is indeed very worrying. However, some people question those statics and argue that what is being done to respond to those statistics may be actually causing more harm. For example, see "Over-Diagnosed: Making people sick in the pursuit of health" by Dr. H Gilbert Welch, Dr Lisa M Schwartz, and Dr Steve Woloshin, or "Worried Sick: A prescription for health in an overtreated America" by Dr Notin Hadler.