Dr Karl takes a bite out of the ‘big food industry’ and the sneaky science they use to make you overeat.

Layer upon layer of fat, salt and sugar conditions you to overeat (Source: Juanmonino/iStockphoto)

I recently had some of my ideas about the food industry overturned, after reading Dr Kessler’s book, The End of Overeating.

Dr Kessler is a real heavy not only was he a lawyer as well as being a paediatric doctor, he was also the commissioner of the American Food and Drug Administration. In his book, he points out the massive contradiction about food that exists in America (and in many other English-speaking Western countries).

He’s interested in how the food industry manipulates food, and how they have specifically altered modern foods to make them almost addictive.

The human body has evolved to eat when it’s hungry and to stop when we are full. But the goal of the American food industry (aka ‘big food’) is the exact opposite. They manufacture a product that stimulates your appetite, so you eat more of it and yet leaves you hungry for more.

And the way the food industry does this is, he claims, by using a quirk of the human brain to get you addicted to the product they sell.

Let me point out that by ‘food industry’, I do not mean your local market gardener, local providore or local food growers co-operative. No, I mean the multi-billion dollar multi-nationals, who sell processed foods that are far removed from their whole food origins.

For most of our many-million year evolution, food was hard to come by. Sugars, fat and salt were all rare and precious. And so our brains are hard-wired to enjoy sugars, fat and salt after all, they improve our chances of survival. In the early 1980s, the American food industry realised how to really capitalise on this.

The food industry began to tailor-make products that combined sugar, fat and salt with a gorgeous ‘mouth feel’. The effects showed up in two different ways.

First, sales of highly processed products rose magnificently, and so did profits.

The second effect was the obesity epidemic. It was first recognised by Dr Katherine Flegal, a senior research scientist at the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention. She was analysing an enormous mountain of data gathered from a US Federal Government survey into the health and nutrition of American citizens. She found an unusual change from the traditional weight change pattern of the preceding century. Previously, the pattern was that American adults would gain a few kilograms between 20 and 40 years of age, and then lose these kilos in their 60s and 70s. But now the configuration was very different there was a sudden spike in the numbers of the overweight. Dr Flegel found that some 20 million Americans, or 8 per cent of the population, had quite suddenly (over a mere decade or so) become overweight.

But how was the food industry involved in this?

Dr Kessler realised that a large proportion of the American population now had a constant battle with the desire to overeat. The Journal of Clinical Investigation wrote that: “Kessler theorises that after being exposed to hyperstimulating foods, some individuals develop what is known as conditioned hypereating”.

“Hypereating” sounds bad, and “conditioned hypereating” sounds even worse. Americans had switched from eating because they were hungry, to eating because their appetite was permanently aroused.

The food industry quickly learnt that manufacturing “hyper-palatable” products (I hesitate to call them a “food” anymore) was a simple two-stage process.

First, you incorporate fat, sugar and salt in every product you manufacture.

Second, you can load the fat, sugar and salt into the core ingredients, or you can layer them on top or underneath, or both.

As an example, let’s assume that the core ingredient is chicken pieces. The factory deep fries it, so the fat is loaded into the chicken meat and usually freezes it for transport. The restaurant then fries them again, which increases the loaded fat. So far you have fat on fat. Then you serve the chicken with a sweet and salty dipping sauce that’s layering.

So our chicken pieces are both loaded and layered with sugar on salt on fat on fat. If your chicken was a gun, it would be locked and loaded. It just takes longer to kill you.

Let’s take the potato as the core ingredient. It’s a carbohydrate a bunch of sugars joined in a chain. Cut it into chips, and deep-fry it. Fat is loaded into the potato chips, and the thinner you cut them, the bigger the surface area, and the more fat they can carry. Layer it with cheese, sprinkle lots of salt on it and feed it to the consumer. You have salt on fat on fat on sugar. Cheese chips are yummy which is good for the manufacturer, but bad for you.

Most hyper-palatable products inherently do not generate a sense of fullness. You just keep on eating, and don’t get full until you’ve eaten a ridiculous amount. No wonder the manufacturers love them.

But how do you make the customer love them? Well, I’ll talk more about that, next time

Tags: diet-and-nutrition, obesity

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Published 09 October 2012

2012 Karl S. Kruszelnicki Pty Ltd

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10 Oct 2012 10:52:32am

Dr Karl, the rest of us have been saying the same for about 40yrs now. DUUUUH It sickens me that one has to wait for a scientist to finally wake up before this mass poioning event will be rectified. There are more ways of “knowing” than by science…but todays culture suffers because we have to wait for scientific imprimatur. There have been numerous books written about this, but labelled “health freaks” or whatever else, by scientists who cant see reality, but are bridled by their thinking. Those of us who are actually present, stopped eating that corporate-evil-food a long time ago…but then what would we know?

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12 Oct 2012 12:22:21am

Johnny, what other ways are there to “know” other than by science? Intuition? Personal experience? Guessing? Gut feeling? Uncle Bob’s hairdresser’s second cousin told you so?
And, you say today’s culture suffers because it has to wait for scientific imprimatur? Are you serious? You mean the same culture where the majority of people think that there is no such thing as human-caused global-warming despite more than 95% of scientists giving anthropogenic climate change their imprimatur?
Regardless, scientists have been saying for a looong time that fast-food is NOT good for you (and I doubt there are many people that even disagree) but all that Dr Karl is saying here is WHY it is ADDICTIVE, he’s not saying that the idea that it is bad for you is some miraculous revelation.

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12 Oct 2012 8:24:52am

Nobody ever said that this was news discovered only by science. Don’t be so easily offended. Dr Karl has a wider audience than some, so perhaps see the positives instead of lashing out at someone sharing some well worded theories…

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10 Oct 2012 12:35:33pm

One of the ‘best’ things to happen to me was to discover that I am gluten-intolerant. Now there is no fast ‘food’, cake etc in my diet. I try and eat fresh and home-made foods only. The weight is falling off and I feel fantastic!

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10 Oct 2012 5:38:06pm

An eye opener post for growing children n parents.

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10 Oct 2012 9:23:46pm

There wouldn’t be an obesity crisis if we all ate real food i.e. food that is dug up, picked, hunted, food that is not processed….food that is hunted and gathered in fact (perhaps by someone else and available for us to purchase!) Real food that is high in fat has been demonised for too long with no evidence to support this. In fact the work that lead to the condemnation of foods high in cholesterol was just bad science. A diet high in essential fats, moderate in protein and low in carbohydrates (with exclusion of all refined carbohydrates) is both satiating and healthy. The newer research is supporting the healthfulness of a “paleo” style diet based on what humans evolved to eat pre the agricultural era. There is no doubt big food (similar to big pharma) is not interested in making people healthy but rather dedicated to maximising their profits.

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10 Oct 2012 10:09:16pm

I have lived in Asia for the last 6 years, witnessed the economic surge create a new middle and upper class. The fast food industry mostly US brands have been in the thick of it.
The Chicken Mob we all know have replaced many a traditional meal The sweets and burger chains also.
What I have witnessed seems a noticeable rise in youth obesity, replace a staple like rice or noodle with a potato as you describe and sweet bread then add the sugar drinks etc and its the same disaster we have happening in Western Countries.
My friend once told me that the reason one company places a small piece of vegetable on its hamburgers was because there was so much sugar in the over all meal that with out the pickle it would be deemed a Desert or sweet in place of a savoury.

I for once feel like my parents, I know my life and habits are different from my Children’s and I don’t like where they are going whilst they can not see the problem.

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11 Oct 2012 11:02:38am

I am supposing from little I have read on the subject that corn syrup is worse than cane sugar. I haven’t read any comparisons with sugar made from beets. Fake sugars on the most part seem worse again. Tell me more about sugar Doc Karl

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11 Oct 2012 7:47:59pm

Hi Sarahs Mum,

That is a really good question about corn syrup.

In terms of comparing types of sugars there are two elements that I think about to decide which is “worse”.

1. How much does the sugar increase your blood sugar?
Blood sugars cause lots of problems including the release of insulin which is the hormone which causes you to lay down fat. The type of sugar as well as the quantity determine the sugar, insulin, fat process.

2. How much fructose is in the sugar?
Sugars are primarily a combination of fructose and glucose (and some lactose in dairy products). While the fructose doesnt trigger insulin release, it goes straight to the liver and turns into fat. Of course it is not as straightforward as that, but pretty much that is what happens. The fructose part is also really addictive! There are some scientists that think that food manufacturers add high fructose corn syrup (55%ish fructose) to their products to make us want to eat more of them, as mentioned in Dr Karls article! Fructose is empty calories that go straight to the hips and also makes us want to eat more.

Overall I think that the quantity of sugar that we eat is more important than the exact type. If we minimise sugars and have party foods at party times we will be looking after ourselves well. Hope this helped.

5th Year Medical Student
University of Western Sydney

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11 Oct 2012 10:03:59pm

There have been a series of TV programs on the BBC Horizon science series , going back several years about “The Men Who Made Us Fat” & other related topics about food & fat people .None of these factual programs have been shown on our ABC ! Why not ? The sugar /corn syrup story is on tape at the BBC .

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12 Oct 2012 8:31:18am

For the ultimate on sugar watch Professor Lustig’s famous lecture on you tube

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11 Oct 2012 7:25:12pm

Dear Dr Karl,

I really enjoyed this article and as a medical student I wanted to add a thought. While there is now a strong evidence base for sugar being addictive, and removing it from our menu has resulted in great boosts to many peoples’ health, the evidence on fat is a different story. Fat causes satiety – it removes our hunger. While improving the texture of food, the evidence for fat being addictive is not such an issue.

I would be really excited if you were able to help our society understand that saturated fat is not the scarey nutrient we have been worried about, and that eating the correct types of fat (that is, no seed oils) can actually improve our cholesterol levels, and help us loose weight.

This has been a particular area of interest for me during my degree, and so have researched the area thoroughly. I would welcome the opportunity to interact with you on this topic of how to improve the health of Australia.

Kind Regards,

5th Year Med Student
University of Western Sydney

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11 Oct 2012 8:12:12pm

Demonising food does good to nobody most food even fast food has a place in our modern lives the biggest problem is over 60% of us think sometime food is always food. The things ithat make life worthwile are food sex and love and probably in that order

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11 Oct 2012 11:10:54pm

There should be a fast/junk food fat tax. The higher the fat content the higher the tax including mandatory health warning labels on all fast/junk foods served.

Compulsory food education/cooking classes in schools would assist in establishing healthy culinary attitudes to food.

Junk/fast food advertising should be prohibited.

People should get into the habit of preparing their own food at home!

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12 Oct 2012 10:02:18am

Dr Karl, thank you for this great explanation. You have nailed it yet again. You have the wonderful knack of beautifully taking often complex science and turning it into something we can all benefit from.
The evils of sugar fat and salt have been a household mantra for decades and this lends lends great support to its cred. Thank you again

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