Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The End of Overeating, by David Kessler

My husband and I closed in like vultures. It was 8:30pm, typically a dangerous time of rampant and flagrant late-night snacking in our house and our daughter had just come home from a friend's birthday dinner at the upscale restaurant chain Naked Tchopstix with a carton of leftovers. I placed a chunk of Kung Pao Chicken in my mouth. The texture: firm within, covered with a bumpy crust, and then coated by a silky sauce. The flavor: bursts of sweet, then savory, (the newly discovered taste of umami came to mind), then the tang of citrus, then a layer of saltiness, and more sweet. My mouth was paralyzed, flooded with pleasure. As I started to chew, the delicate crunch of the coating slowly dissolved into the smooth sauce, all of this melding into the tender texture of the chicken inside. Charles took a bite, and we looked at each other incredulously, our eyes wide. The question silently passed between us: How could anything taste so impossibly good?

It has seemed to me for awhile now that the food available these days, compared to the food I ate as a child four decades ago, is vastly different. Enter "The End of Overeating," an eye-opening book by David Kessler, a physician and former commissioner of the USDA, that confirms every one of my paranoid suspicions.

Sugar, fat and salt. Kessler writes that, although there is nothing intrinsically wrong with any of these substances, the food industry overloads our food with them and this diabolically changes the chemistry in our brains, thereby messing up how we regulate our intake. These three ingredients make food compelling, and the purposeful loading and layering of our foods with sugar, fat and salt makes them highly hedonic. Today's food producers design products so that consumers ingest substances with differing stimuli and sensations, taking into account such factors as mouthfeel, temperature, texture and viscosity.

As Kessler explains, the sugar/fat/salt issue effects all processed food, from packaged food in our grocery stores to the food we eat in restaurants. Kessler devotes several chapters revealing the practices of some of the marketplace's worst offenders, and then offers solutions, explaining in detail how we can retrain our brains, reducing the craving these substances give rise to and ease the neuro-biochemical roller coaster changes they induce.

The Kung Pao Chicken had a few stalks of deep, green broccoli. I took a bite. It was crunchy, yet soft, and cloyingly sweet; the taste of sugar completely overshadowed any vegetable flavor. When broccoli tastes like sugar it's no wonder that, as a society, we find ourselves at the mercy of the array of prepared foods sold in our groceries and restaurants. Willpower won't always trump our brain's quest for pleasure. In the battle of the bulge our appetites will win unless we arm ourselves with knowledge about the larger forces at play, forces that lead to food laden with unhealthful, addictive ingredients.

No comments:

Post a Comment