Blame it on Big Food

The scientific rationale for obesity in Western society has a crucial flaw – it credits humans with equal intelligence to a pet cat.

Big Mac

In Brave New World, Aldous Huxley’s satirical vision of consumer society gone badly wrong, the inhabitants are kept on a blissful high by ready access to a drug called soma, cocooning them from their banal, hedonistic existence.

I was reminded of soma by a book recently published by Professor David Kessler, called The End of Overeating. The book argues that food manufacturers are engaged in a conspiracy to make junk food irresistible to consumers. They do this by carefully impregnating a range of products from breakfast cereals to ice cream, crisps, even certain salad dressings, with a heady cocktail of sugar, salt and fat calculated to trip a “bliss point” in the brain – which makes overindulgence impossible to resist. Voilà! The scientific rationale for obesity in Western societies.

My summary may sound a little facetious, but in reality this is no laughing matter. Indeed, Kessler is a very serious person. He was once head of that powerful watchdog, the US Food and Drug Administration, where he earned a reputation as a principled and aggressive operator. He nearly managed to curb the tobacco industry by (unsuccessfully, eventually) proving that cigarettes are in fact a drug (FDA v Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp). On another occasion, he had 24,000 gallons of orange juice seized because, although labelled “fresh”, the juice was in fact concentrate. He’s a polymath, currently the chief practitioner in paediatrics, epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California (where, formerly as dean, he created a stink by exposing financial maladministration).

He is now throwing his considerable gravitas behind a crusade aimed at bringing the US (for which read multinational) processed food industry to heel. Just to remind ourselves who he’s talking about here, the likes of Starbucks, Heinz, Kraft General Foods, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, McDonald’s, Kellogg… You get the picture.

Superficially, Kessler’s book is in the tradition of Morgan Spurlock’s 2004 film Supersize Me; or even Michael Moore’s Sicko, which attacked the US healthcare system. But where they deploy satire, he has invoked scientific reason to justify his assault.

The picture he paints is of thousands of food scientists cynically manipulating our palettes with products so tasty that we end up in the grip of addiction. The suggestion is that processed food is such a powerful stimulant of the brain’s receptors that it makes us do irrational things, like grow fat; it should therefore be treated as a drug and controlled accordingly.

Now I have no doubt that food companies do exactly as Kessler suggests when it comes to flattering our taste buds. If manipulating the palate works for pet food manufacturers, I have no reason to suppose the same engineering technique cannot be extended to human foods such as Pringles, Mars bars or Kit Kats.

But that’s not saying very much really. We make those kind of choices every time we go out for a meal. Apparently, one of the most attractive cocktails of sugar, chocolate and alcohol yet devised for the human palate is Tiramisu. I happen to be quite fond of it myself. But it doesn’t mean that every time I go to a restaurant, I am prey to a hopeless addiction, causing me to order the dessert without hesitation.

And here we come to the crux of the matter. Kessler’s attack on the food industry really amounts to philosophical prejudice posing as impartial scientific reason. “It’s time to stop blaming individuals for being overweight or obese,” says Kessler. “The real problem is we have created a world where food is always available and where that food is designed to make you want to eat more of it.” 

The “real” problem? It’s a problem, I grant you. But the underlying  suggestion is that human beings have no choice in the matter; that they are easily conditioned and infinitely suggestible. This is akin to the conspiracy theme in Vance Packard’s book The Hidden Persuaders. It was a flawed mono-causal theory then (1957), and it’s a flawed mono-causal theory now.

It is also symptomatic of “blame culture”, of a society where people are increasingly unwilling to take responsibility for their own actions – and therefore on the look-out for the first available scapegoat when things are not to their liking.

The picture he paints is of thousands of food scientists cynically manipulating our palettes with products so tasty that we end up in the grip of addiction

If you’re going to seek out the causes of rising obesity (now affecting, it is said, 25% of UK adults) you might also cite the following (by no means exhaustive) list – grazing habits, brought about by the collapse of social meal-times and the extended family unit; the near disappearance of sport as a compulsory element in the state-school curriculum; the progressive erosion of cooking skills (ironically, in the age of the television superchef); the dissolution of parental authority; and the abdication of government responsibility for what are deemed to be individual choices.

This last might seem strange in the age of the nanny state and such initiatives as Change4Life. Nevertheless, even Labour administrations find it increasingly difficult to intervene in anything other than a cosmetic way. And the reason? I cannot do better than invoke the words of this year’s Reith Lecturer, Professor Michael Sandel. “Somehow, without quite meaning to, we have drifted from being a market economy to being a market society.”

He’s talking about a place – the market state – where market values have crept into all sorts of places where they are not the norm: for-profit schools, the outsourcing of military suppliers, and privatised police forces, for instance. Market outcomes deal in efficiencies, and sit uncomfortably with the evaluation of the common good. Consequently, politicians are increasingly reluctant to make moral decisions on behalf of their voters: everyone has a “choice”, even if it means selecting their own private hell.

Such portentous societal trends might seem far removed from blaming the food companies for the obesity crisis. But they are not: they merely define the environment in which those companies are allowed to operate.

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