SPECIAL REPORT THE FOOD INDUSTRY’S DIRTY SECRETS
The War on Our
Inside the wild world of food processing
BY DAVID A. KESSLER, M.D.
Higher sugar, fat, and salt
make you want to eat more,”
a high-level food-industry
executive tells me. I’ve already
read this in the scientific
literature and heard it in conversations with
neuroscientists and psychologists. Now an
insider is saying the same thing.
My source is a leading food consultant,
a Henry Ford of mass-produced food who
agreed to part the curtain for me, at least a
bit, to reveal how his industry operates. To
protect his business, he doesn’t want to be
But he is remarkably candid, explaining
that the food industry creates dishes to
hit what he calls the “three points of the
compass.” Sugar, fat, and salt make a food
in restaurants, and most of them hit the
three points of the compass. Sugar, fat, and
salt are either loaded into a core ingredient
(such as meat, vegetables, potatoes, or bread),
layered on top of it, or both. Deep-fried
tortilla chips are an example of loading; the
fat is contained in the chip itself. When a
baked potato is smothered in cheese, sour
cream, and sauce, that’s layering.
I ask the food consultant to describe
the ingredients in some of the foods that
are commonly found in today’s popular
Potato skins, for example: Typically, the
potato is hollowed out and the skin is fried,
which provides a substantial surface area
for what he calls “fat pickup.” Then some
combination of bacon bits, sour cream, and
SUGAR, FAT, AND SALT MAKE A FOOD COMPELLING.
THEY MAKE IT INDULGENT. THEY MAKE IT HIGH IN
HEDONIC VALUE, WHICH GIVES US PLEASURE.
compelling, he says. They make it indulgent.
They make it high in hedonic value, which
gives us pleasure.
“Do you design food specifically to be
highly hedonic?” I ask.
“Oh, absolutely,” he replies without a
moment’s hesitation. “We try to bring as
much of that into the equation as possible.”
The past two decades have seen
an explosion in our ability
to access and afford highly
palatable foods. Restaurants—
where Americans spend 50
percent of today’s food dollars—sit at the
epicenter of this explosion.
Countless new foods have been introduced
David A. Kessler, MD, is the former commissioner
of the U. S. Food and Drug Administration. This
excerpt is from his new book, The End of Overeating
(Rodale), about America’s obesity epidemic.
cheese is added. The result is fat on fat on fat
on fat, much of it loaded with salt.
Cheese fries “take a high-fat food and put
more fat on top of it,” he says. The potato
base is a simple carbohydrate, which quickly
breaks down to sugar in the body. Once it’s
fried and layered with cheese, we’re eating
salt on fat on fat on sugar.
Buffalo wings start with the fatty parts of
a chicken, which are then deep-fried. Then
they’re served with creamy or sweet dipping
sauces that are heavily salted. Wings are
usually par-fried at a production plant, and
then fried again at the restaurant, which
essentially doubles the fat. That gives us
sugar on salt on fat on fat on fat.
“Spinach dip” is a misnomer. The
spinach provides little more than color and
a bit of appeal; a high-fat, high-salt dairy
product is the main ingredient. It’s a tasty
dish of salt on fat.
Chicken tenders are so loaded with batter
and fat that my source jokes about their
being a UFO: an unidentified fried object.
Salt and sugar are loaded into the fat.
The White Chocolate Mocha
Frappuccino served at Starbucks is coffee
diluted with a mix of sugar, fat, and salt. The
whipped cream is optional.
Bloomin’ Onions—a trademark Outback
Steakhouse appetizer—are very popular.
They, too, provide plenty of surface area
to absorb fat. Fried in batter and topped
with sauce, their flavor comes from salt on
sugar on fat.
Salads contain vegetables, of course, but in
today’s restaurants the vegetables are more
than likely to be smothered in a cream-based
ranch dressing and flavored with cheese
chunks, bacon bits, and oily croutons. The
food consultant calls this “fat with a little
lettuce,” although salt is in the salad as well.
Even lettuce has become a vehicle for fat.
I begin reading a menu from the
Cheesecake Factory to my industry source.
He calls the chain, known for its vast
spaces and equally vast portions, “an icon of
We start with the appetizers.
“Tex Mex Eggrolls: Spicy chicken, corn,
black beans, peppers, onions, and melted
cheese. Served with avocado cream and
salsa,” I read. The food consultant says the
avocado alone is about 15 to 20 percent fat,
and that’s before any mayonnaise or heavy
cream is loaded in. A fried outer layer wraps
fat and salt around more fat.
“Roadside Sliders: Bite-sized burgers
on minibuns served with grilled onions,
pickles, and ketchup.” The words suggest a
cute little hamburger, but he says there’s salt
and fat in the meat, and sugar and salt in the
caramelized onions and ketchup. In reality,
this dish is fat surrounded by layers of sugar
on salt on sugar on salt, making it another