David Kessler, the FDA commissioner who fought to bring the cigarette and tobacco companies to heel in the 1990s–has taken on the next big fight by doing something you wouldn’t think a man that eminent needs to do: he’s gone dumpster diving in the parking lots behind the fast-food chain restaurants in California. In a suit, according to his wife.
What’s in the dumpsters? Kessler’s new book, The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite, reveals a dirty secret. Kessler went in search of the nutrition labels on the boxes of food shipped to individual chain restaurants like Chili’s to find out what’s really in the food they serve and why people have so much trouble stopping at a normal portion and normal calorie intake when they make fast food a part of their lives.
He found the labels. Even ordinary-sounding foods were pumped abnormally, exaggeratedly, unconscionably high with fat, salt, and sugar. One appetizer–the Southwest Eggrolls–contained 910 calories, 57 grams of fat and 1,960 milligrams of sodium. Basically half a day’s calories for a normal healthy woman’s diet, about twice the recommended amount of fat if most of it was saturated, and nearly all of the recommended maximum for sodium.
Not really a big surprise–fat, salt and sugar are the three things most likely to provide a “quick hit” of satisfaction when you eat them, and all of them are cheap substitutes for actual flavor or (dare we dream) fresh ingredients you might otherwise expect in food. Most packaged snacks rely on at least one and usually all three–think Snickers; think Chees-Its; think just about any kind of vending machine item–fat, salt, sugar. It’s a hit.
But we know packaged snacks are junk food. We thought dinner at Chili’s — or Bennigan’s — or TGI Fridays — was an actual meal. It LOOKS like a meal. It looks like meat and vegetables and rice or potato. What Kessler discovered on the nutrition labels makes them seem more like giant-sized, glorified, salted, sugar-coated, oiled-up snack foods parading as meals.
That’s not a shocking kind of report anymore–the Center for Science in the Public Interest has been putting out shocker nutritional reports on all kinds of popular foods since it blasted into the headlines by calling fettucini Alfredo “a heart attack on a plate”. But since the CSPI Alfredo debacle, Americans have been swarming to fast food restaurants and sit-down chains in record numbers–not as a weekend jaunt but as a staple of their diet, reportedly eating out an average of 6 times a week.
Kessler ties these trends together with recent physiological research on fat, salt, and sugar consumption. Instead of satisfying hunger, the fat-salt-sugar combo acts as a stimulant, hitting up the dopamine receptors in the brain and triggering release of opiates as a “quick relief” response to eating the first bite of a fast food. Followed shortly, we would guess, by a let-down. And then a vicious cycle as the body suffers rapid hunger for more, even though you’ve just eaten.
So fat-salt-sugar really is a drug. Something we already knew, but not in such detail. The fact that it’s being exploited not just in vending machine snack packs but in what we thought was real food, just restaurant-prepared, goes some way to explain why reports in the past year have clocked Americans eating 3800 calories a day.
The fact that that mass-prepared food has been manipulated to exaggerate the fat-salt-sugar content and encourage people to eat more than is reasonable in a chain restaurant sitting is even more insidious. The fact that high-class restaurants with big-name chefs are resorting to similar tactics–often unwittingly–to “boost flavor” and compete with chain food is just depressing.
Or in other words: Restaurant food is the new tobacco.
Filed under: books, Eating out, Food Politics | Tagged: chain restaurants, David Kessler, fat, Food Politics, hypereating, junk food, nutrition, nutrition labeling, obesity, processed food, salt, sugar |