There was an interesting story on 60 Minutes a couple Sunday’s ago on the food flavoring industry. You may remember the episode. It was the one with Angelina Jolie. Ok, now you are probably nodding your head saying oh yeah, I saw that one. Anyway....what interested me about this episode was the segment where Morley Safer interviewed Givaudan, a Swiss corporation that creates designer flavors for the processed food industry. They aim to replicate the greatest flavorist out there, Mother Nature, by chemically re-engeneering her molecules in a lab so your frozen entree tastes like chicken and your soda tastes like orange - even when there is no chicken or orange in there.
What I find morally reprehensible about these types of companies is that they are in the business of generating food addictions to unhealthy foods. In the 60 Minutes interview one of the employees described that with the fruit flavors, they aim for an initial burst and then want the flavor to taper off quickly so the customer wants more. Morley Safer mentions that this type of quick fix is also known as addiction and what they are trying to do is make an addictive taste. The response from Givaudan was “exactly.” One of the frozen food representative chefs said - “It’s like sex, your brain wants it over and over again until you get a headache.” Really! Don’t these people know that there is an obesity epidemic out there? Not to mention a rise in a host of other chronic conditions that are related to unhealthy food choices.
Food additives being addictive is not a new thing. For example, a 2004 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) reported that overweight kids ate significantly more daily calories when allowed to eat junk food. They ate more because the junk food triggered the brain’s reward centers resulting in cravings and addictive type behavior. David Kessler, M.D., the former head of the Food and Drug Administration, also addressed this topic in his book The End of Overeating. He describes how the food industry creates overly stimulating foods that can lead to addiction.
In the 60 Minutes episode, the food flavorists frequently reference flavor intensity as a goal. If a child is raised on processed foods their palates will be hijacked by these intense franken-food flavors and their brains will never learn how to gain satiety and satisfaction from real food. Even “healthier” processed food options are suspect. In an effort to reduce salt, fat and sugar, there is greater reliance on artificial flavors and sweeteners. Even if the flavors were inspired by a natural source they are still far from natural. Morely Safer hits the nail on the head when describing the chicken flavoring process as “part chicken, part chemical, all flavor.”
A couple years ago I went to a lecture at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota on addictive substances that are commercially available to our young ones. Besides discussing cigarette additives and ads that target young kids (brand loyalty+addictive chemicals=lifetime of income for the cigarette manufacturers) they discussed all the food chemicals that stimulate brain addiction centers. Sugar, fat and salt are some of the main culprits. Think of your typical breakfast cereal marketed to kids that is high in sugar and sodium that your child pleads for. Now think about the blatant admittance from a food additive company that addiction seems to be part of the business model - this in light of chronic obesity and chronic disease in young children! Just recently I was listening to a news report regarding the Environmental Working Group’s analysis of the 10 worst kids breakfast cereals for sugar. These commonly known and widely available cereals contain a similar dose of sugar as found in desserts. No wonder little Johnny is doing somersaults trying to get mommy to purchase his boxed breakfast pseudo-food. Basically, kids are getting dessert for breakfast. No amount of added vitamins and minerals will redeem this product or correct the rest of the days intake when you begin with that much sugar and its subsequent insulin (inflammatory compound) response.
We need fewer of these processed items in our diet, not more. Besides addiction, processed food sugars feed the bad bugs (bacteria/yeast) in our guts, and can lead to type 2 diabetes, weight gain and other chronic diseases. In addition, the fats found in processed foods are high in many inflammatory polyunsaturated omega-6 fats. The combination of sugar and fat can dampen the immune system and set up inflammation which leads to disease.
Maybe our government should tax processed foods and let some of those tax dollars serve as a subsidy for fresh produce...the costs of which are too prohibitive for many low to middle income families while, sadly, processed food is cheap, cheap, cheap. What we need to do is re-program our taste buds and our brains to recognize and enjoy real food, not bombard them again and again with toxic flavors that will lead to addiction and disease. Do me a favor and check out the 60 Minutes segment so you can continue to make informed food choices for you and your family. You can find the video by clicking here.
Thanks to my intern Debra Wolf, University of Bridgeport MS in Human Nutrition student, who inspired and contributed to this post.