Addictive Food

Food is a popular subject for exposes. We are routinely treated to some discovery about how food manufacturers use processes and substances that denude food of its nutrient value or turn it into something that’s actively toxic.

We love that kind of story. We’re always so shocked and horrified. It’s kind of like horror stories around the campfire—only we don’t wake up the next morning and laugh about how stupid we were. The story just keeps going on.

And yet it is a very old story repeated in all areas of food manufacturing: factories in the fields with companies such as Monsanto or the food processing factories with companies such as Kraft or the food delivery factories that serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner with companies such as McDonald’s. Even organic and natural food manufacturers are in the game with outlets such as Whole Foods.

At the center of the latest expose is a book titled “Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us” by Michael Moss, a journalist in the New York Times stable. Its author is making the rounds on NPR and so forth—and even had an entire hour on Democracy Now!

As the title suggests, the book documents how processed food manufacturers use food science to combine salt, sugar, and fat in order to create addictive foods. Why this is news is a mystery to me.

Four years ago, former FDA commissioner David Kessler wrote a book titled “The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite.” Kessler’s thesis was that processed food manufacturers use food science to combine salt, sugar, and fat in order to create addictive foods. Kessler made the same rounds as Michael Moss, including Democracy Now!

Maybe the media forgot. Or maybe they like to be shocked and horrified so that you’ll be shocked and horrified and have your darkest fears confirmed and maybe motivate you to read food labels more carefully.

I’m not completely sarcastic in saying this. In all the discussion of how food manufacturers create addictive food, the solutions revolve around two poles: individual choice and government intervention. Individuals read the labels that governments make food manufacturers put on their commodities. Government agencies also enforce laws about what manufacturers can put in their food commodities.

This fantasy enlists the myth of the market economy in which businesses respond to consumer demand and government regulation, which is there to protect consumers. I think we’re all aware that the part about government regulation is laughably naïve. But is there really a problem with consumers lacking the information they need to be smart shoppers?

Obviously not.

Consumers shouldn’t have to be well informed. They should be able to walk into a store, buy a food product, and eat it in safety—all in blissful ignorance. Instead, they are manipulated into eating addictive foods, intentionally designed to be addictive.

Before anyone boils over with outrage, know that food manufacturers are doing exactly what they’re supposed to do in a food economy based on the capitalist mode of production: create an ever-expanding stream of revenue, enhance in the Twentieth Century by science that enables businesses to create commodity addictions.

This is not news.

The other thing that’s not news is how addictive foods are associated with salt, sugar, and fat. Through a sleight-of-hand, those foods are associated with bad health so that we can be doubly horrified: for being manipulated and for being poisoned.

But this is also obviously false. Salt is essential to your health. So is fat. Sugar might not be essential, but it is not in itself harmful. What is critical for health is the form of the salt, sugar, and fat.

Refined salt is more likely to cause harm than sea salt, which consists of a mixture of minerals unlike simple sodium chloride. Fats damaged by processing are harmful. Fats from raw milk are terrific. High fructose corn syrup is poison, but the fructose in a fresh peach is just fine.

So the problem here is not salt, sugar, and fat but the form in which they are delivered. The form in which they are delivered is the result of an industrial process driven by the need for expanding revenue, lowering costs, and controlling the manufacture and sale of the food product.

Your health is beside the point.

And if you think the FDA or some other government agency is there to protect your health, think again. The guys with the badges and guns are there to preserve social order by enforcing the law, which might or might not protect your health.

It seems to come down to you and what you take home from the grocery store or farmers market or what not. And that’s a myth, too. A very well-cultivated myth by big thinkers who write horrifying books about the awful things corporations do to you. It happens to serve the interest of those corporations very well because there’s an idea that never gets mentioned: something that you can do about addictive food—and it’s not an herb or vitamin or exercise program.

The idea is that you and your friends and neighbors get together and say, “You can’t sell your addictive commodity in our neighborhood, to our friends, to our families.” The idea is that you and your friends and your neighbors and maybe even some people you don’t know yet get together and say, “We won’t let you make addictive commodities. If you do, we’ll run you out of town.”

Addictive food is a collective problem. It demands a collective solution.