|Why Junk Food?|
In a highly revealing new book out this month, Michael Moss, long time reporter for the New York Times, tells of his four year investigation into the policies and marketing campaigns of the largest food processing companies during the last few decades.
In his book Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, Pulitzer Prize Winner Moss tells chilling stories about industry leaders who have no regard for the health effects of their products and about former executives and scientists who tried to reign in the worst of their products only to be rebuffed.
It is clear that only when the market affects the bottom line does the industry move. But even then, these companies design campaigns which get the most dollars for the least amount of actual change in their products or formulas, and often they find ways to use a health trend to their advantage to sell more junk food under a more appealing name.
A long article in the New York Times Magazine by Moss included a number of stories about lunch food for school kids, the soda industry, the yogurt industry, and more.
The bottom line is that advertising and packaging can be very misleading and the ubiquitous messages can actually wear down even the most ad resistant eater at times.
Most health experts agree that the extra salt, sugar, and fat added to our foods is what's ruining our health because these foods are addictive and the industry spends many millions a year to find out how to increase our cravings for them. These are responsible for much of our diabetes, heart disease, and obesity as well as many other chronic problems.
I have long pointed out to my nutrition clients and students that these three factors are ideal preservatives. They have been used throughout history to preserve foods. Traditionally, sugar and salt dry foods out so that they are not attractive to microbes and are less likely to spoil. Likewise fat conceals the food from microbes and tends to prevent spoilage by exposure to air.
In the past, these three were very expensive to obtain and use. They were rarely if ever used with foods which were going to be eaten before they would spoil or be contaminated. Solomon got rich from his salt mines. Much later, Europe got rich from the sugar cane grown by slaves in the Caribbean. Today, agribusiness farmers have become rich from chemical extraction of oils from seed crops.
Now salt, sugar, and fat are significantly overused because new forms have been invented, especially for sugar and fat, so that they are cheap and last virtually forever, mixed with various chemicals and preservatives in our foods.
But why use them at all? Because they taste good! We are programmed from millions of years of evolution to be attracted to sweet, salty, and fatty foods because in nature these occurred almost exclusively in highly nutritious foods. Honey, maple syrup, and milk were the only sources of sugar not attached to high fiber, slow digesting foods. Salt came only from mines. Fats were hard to extract. Only butter, olives and a few very rich seeds yielded oils which could be used for cooking or flavoring. Obtaining these concentrated salts, sugars, and fats, were time and labor intensive.
In the old days, salt, sugar, and fat flavors were a sign of a good food. They did not appear in isolation as the main ingredient in the food. Sugar usually meant a ripe fruit or a vegetable that was fully ripened and ready to eat. Salty meant a food which was rich in minerals, like a sea creature or sea vegetable or an herb. Fat meant a healthy nut or seed or wild caught animal.
We no longer get those healthy foods when we reach for a salty, sugary or fatty snack. We just get the empty calories, along with the unnatural highly processed sugars and fats, like high fructose corn syrup or hydrogenated soy oil.
But why do the food processors continue to include so much of this stuff if they know it is bad for us and if they have other more modern ways to preserve foods, like refrigeration, drying, airless packaging, and more?.
It's about flavor and addiction. First, modern processed foods taste terrible all by themselves. "Like cardboard" is what most folks say when they try to eat low salt low sugar low fat foods which look like their junk food favorites. We have become habituated to highly flavored foods, but the flavor is not coming from whole, healthy, mature, natural foods. It's coming from salt, sugar, and fat, and some amazing chemicals which replicate for our taste palate the impression of the natural food. Strawberry or blueberry flavor for example.
Food product manufacturers make the cheapest product possible which the consumer will still want to consume. The basic ingredients most likely taste terrible without the added salt, sugar, or fat.
The second factor, addiction, is about our body's craving for nourishing food. We are getting the salt, sugar, and fat flavor which to our primitive brain sensors means nutrition but we don't get the nutrition. So we keep eating more of the stuff expecting to find the nourishment which just isn't there. Also, recent research has shown that these foods can have direct addictive affects on the brain's neurotransmitters, much like nicotine or other addictive substances. It is sad to realize that the food processors not only know this, they also build their campaigns around it, based on the marketing reality that it is easier to get a present customer to consume more than to attract a new customer.
But we can make choices which avoid these addictive and tasteless foods. It has been shown over and over again that when people avoid the excess salt and sugar and fat, they don't miss it at all, as long as their need for real food is being met.
People often wonder at the "will power" of folks who stick mostly with home made, minimally processed, and organic food. But there is no willpower involved. The food tastes wonderful and meets the body's needs, so there are no cravings for snacks or junk. The satisfaction of natural sweetness, natural saltiness, and natural fats comes from real foods which your brain and body can use and appreciate to build your health.
Randy Rolfe's Take Home Tips: As my colleague Alice Baland, author of Eat Up the Good Life and eating disorders specialist, said just this morning, "Just ignore the ads and attractive labels and ask yourself, when they tempt you, is this really going to contribute to the healthy lifestyle I want to live?"
And of course I want to recommend my own book, The True Secret to Weight Loss Is Energy. just out in 2012. It encapsulates over 40 years of my personal experience educating folks about how to attain and maintain health, healthy weight, and vibrant energy.