I read this NYT article featuring David Kessler a couple of years ago and it really resonated with me. Here's an excerpt giving the gist of things:
When it comes to stimulating our brains, Dr. Kessler noted, individual ingredients aren’t particularly potent. But by combining fats, sugar and salt in innumerable ways, food makers have essentially tapped into the brain’s reward system, creating a feedback loop that stimulates our desire to eat and leaves us wanting more and more even when we’re full.
Dr. Kessler isn’t convinced that food makers fully understand the neuroscience of the forces they have unleashed, but food companies certainly understand human behavior, taste preferences and desire. In fact, he offers descriptions of how restaurants and food makers manipulate ingredients to reach the aptly named “bliss point.” Foods that contain too little or too much sugar, fat or salt are either bland or overwhelming. But food scientists work hard to reach the precise point at which we derive the greatest pleasure from fat, sugar and salt.
The result is that chain restaurants like Chili’s cook up “hyper-palatable food that requires little chewing and goes down easily,” he notes. And Dr. Kessler reports that the Snickers bar, for instance, is “extraordinarily well engineered.” As we chew it, the sugar dissolves, the fat melts and the caramel traps the peanuts so the entire combination of flavors is blissfully experienced in the mouth at the same time.
Foods rich in sugar and fat are relatively recent arrivals on the food landscape, Dr. Kessler noted. But today, foods are more than just a combination of ingredients. They are highly complex creations, loaded up with layer upon layer of stimulating tastes that result in a multisensory experience for the brain. Food companies “design food for irresistibility,” Dr. Kessler noted. “It’s been part of their business plans.”
What is the paleo response to being in a world saturated with foods that combine fat, sugar, and salt to make these hyper-palatable foods?
It seems that fat constitutes the core of most of our diets, and we actively shun sugar, but I know of few folks on PaleoHacks who go out of their way to avoid salt - and in fact most of us probably add it to our food during or after cooking. Do we need all three (of sugar, salt, and fat) for something to be dangerously, addictively tasty, or does the presence of two of the three factors (salt and fat) pose any added physiological risk compared with eating just fat?
Unrefined salt is a health food. It stimulates the release of enzymes involved in digestion, it provides the chloride part of HCl, it's involved with optimal adrenal function and cellular metabolism and it stimulates brain development in infants. Animals also pursue salt (salt licks).
Kessler's book stated the obvious regarding the conspiracy to get people to eat processed foods based on what we're hardwired to like.
Saturated fats are only healthy (it's the industrialized fats in the processed foods that are not) and proper, adequate consumption of them will eliminate the cravings for sugar and other refined carbohydrates (the body uses carbohydrates to make the saturated fat it needs if the saturated fats are not provided by the diet). If people are eating adequate amounts of saturated fats (what people are told to avoid) they won't be wanting the carbohydrates (refined or not) that Kessler says we're programmed to want.
I think that Paleo IS the answer to hyper-palatable foods.
Once we take away the option of eating things cooked up by food chemists to taste especially good, we're sort of in the clear. Meaning that the more we eat whole foods, the longer we are able to go without stuffing our faces full of Doritos.
Paleo is like having a protective bubble around your tongue, intestine, and liver. Nothing is getting in that is not meant to get in. Some paleos already loved eating meat and vegetables and butter. Personally, I liked SAD snacks and desserts because they are hyperpalatable and make my tongue feel loved. Luckily, the longer I stick with paleo, the less enticing those other foods are. Diets that allow hyperpalatable foods implictly tempt you to binge. With paleo, it's more of a problem just getting enough (non butter) calories sometimes.
Combining them certainly makes food yummier. I can't say that plain fruit or plain meat is particularly addictive flavor-wise - he probably has something there. Although if you're full no amount of delicious food will sway you to eat. Overeating likely has just as much if not more to do with a breakdown in our satiety signaling, namely leptin. This is where people go wrong with their entirely psychological (I count senses as psychological) explanations of modern problems. I could go and make some delicious salty pineapple pork that rivals any processed food in flavor, but I'm full. When I do I'll enjoy it but once you're satisfied and full that's it for the eating.
As for business, jea of course if you make food yummier people will be "addicted" in the sense that worse food is undesirable, prompting them to choose the yummier food and feel sad if they have to settle for less. But this is a very loose definition of addiction, it more or less means preference. I think if I had no other choice than to eat plain meat and plain fruit I would just learn to enjoy that just as much. Comparison of different activities is less meaningful when they can't be experienced consecutively. If given the chance I'll listen to metal 9 times out of 10 and enjoy it greatly, but if all that is playing is good-quality hip-hop the difference probably won't bug me.
Every culture on earth has food taboos. Whether it comes from our genes or our upbringing, every single one of us has a feeling of "right" and "wrong" about food. What those rules are depend entirely on the culture, and can change rapidly when exposed to new ideas, but once something gets into that taboo category the thought of eating it produces an immediate and visceral reaction.
"Here's your plate of sheep's offal, Mr. SAD."
"Mrs. Vegan, I'm glad you're enjoying your french fries. They're cooked in the finest lard."
"Miss Paleo, would you like some partially-hydrogenated soybean oil on your steak?"
"No, Rabbi, this isn't imitation crab meat."
"Soylent Green is people!"
Etc. The reaction isn't just "oh no, I broke the rules." It's a full-on gut-wrenching squick.
My suspicion, though I have no research to back it up, is that this is an instinct that evolved parallel to language use. We avoid foods that the people around us think are disgusting. As the attitudes around us change, often so do our own. That's partly why sites like PaleoHacks exist, to hack our instinct for taboo with like-minded community support.
It's also why we have to police ourselves with good science and pay attention to the evolving body of evidence to keep from falling into unhealthy dogmatic practices.
So the solution, at a community level, is to engage with like-minded people, practice healthy eating, inform anyone who wants to learn and let the culture grow on its own. Instinct will take care of the rest.
As someone for whom giving up sugar was/is my hardest paleo challenge, I'll say that many whole foods are very palatable. Retraining your palate to enjoy whole foods, even those mixed together to approximate hyper-palatable foods is what life is about. Mashed sweet potatoes with butter and salt is nothing like, say, Mom's sweet potatoes with butter, brown sugar, and marshmallows. If I can love the former than I won't ever go back and eat the latter. It'll just taste too sweet.
Fat absolutely creates the satiety that everyone SAD or Paleo craves. I'm not hungry so SAD foods don't appeal. Food doesn't have to have less taste to protect us from ourselves.
During the 30 day challenge I craved Kimchi like crazy. Salty, spicy, crunchy fermented goodness. I think my body knew it would satisfy me when I was trying to quell sugar cravings. Hyper-palatable foods can be replaced with foods that the body finds physiologically satiating like fatty and fermented. Combine those with other plainer foods to create "very-palatable" food is merely giving our tongues enjoyment. Not the road back to SAD.
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