Too Many Cooks

By Joe Romano,
Marketing Manager

    They are sick that surfeit with too much, as they that starve with nothing.

— William Shakespeare

Ah, Spring! — the season where our coats and sweaters come off and we are forced to face the pounds so many of us have put on over the winter. For Americans as a nation, though, the long winter of our discontent has lasted for over 40 years. Americans are gaining weight, quickly and profoundly.

For thousands of years, right up until the end of this century, the average human body weight was a very stable figure; back in 1960 it was pretty much what it always had been, around 128 pounds for a woman in her twenties. By 2000, the average weight for women in that age group had risen to 157 pounds. The American male fared similarly; between 1960 and 1990, he became 27 pounds heavier.

So, as trim and fit as any one of us may be, we are an overweight nation. Two thirds of Americans over the age of twenty are overweight and half of those are considered obese.

There are many who would posit valid reasons for our weight gain, blaming portion sizes, or the makeup of packaged and processed foods, or the fact that we increasingly eat on the run. Instead, let us look at a single, massive behavioral shift that encompasses and allows for all of these theories. It is a change so basic that if we were to reverse it we might be able to solve the epidemic of obesity, a situation that Dr. Julie Gerberding, the director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has declared our nation’s number one health problem.  We would almost certainly solve many other health, social and environmental issues at the same time.

Put simply, Americans have stopped preparing their own food.  Instead, we began to let hundreds of thousands of corporate cooks, literally armies of strangers, do our cooking for us.

Initially we believed that these armies would be greeted as liberators, and they were. When convenience food was born, with it came the idea that women, who had the traditional role of preparing the food for the family, could take off their aprons and join the workforce. It was indeed like bringing freedom to the oppressed.

But instead, we gave our newfound freedom away to those armies of convenience food Svengalis, who determined portion size and ingredient lists and stood to profit more if we ate more. Now, the aprons may be off, but we’ve grown too overweight to fit them back on.

According to David Kessler, the author of The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite, we are growing so quickly because prepared foods are deliberately made to be what the industry calls “hedonic.” That means they consistently hit what food techs call “the three points of the compass:” sugar, fat and salt. These three ingredients, when eaten in the right amounts, cause us to crave more sugar, fat and salt. Those exact proportions are carefully crafted not to exceed what the product engineers call the “bliss point,” the point at which we begin to find the food too sweet, too salty or too greasy. The actual foods in these products, the potato in a salty cheese fry with sugary ketchup, for example, are chosen for their propensity for “fat pickup.” Then the fat and salt and sugar are “loaded,” in the case of an item like crackers, or “layered,” in the case of something like a veggie burger. Even salads are referred to as “fat with a little lettuce” by expert food consultants who also manipulate sensory stimuli like oral, manual and visual texture: aroma, “tooth stick,” ease of pour, creaminess, crumbliness, gloss, particle size, viscosity… and, oh yeah, flavor.

One consideration that might seem notably absent in their formulations is nutrition, but that is not the case.  The food techs are very interested in nutrition as it relates to Nutritional Information Labels, because they know that we consumers are increasingly trying to arm ourselves in the war on food, so they are very careful not to alert us when there is real nutritional danger. 

When product technicians put sugar in food, they know that if it is the first or second ingredient, many of us will not buy it.  So they use three different kinds of sugar, all of which will now end up at the end of the list. Or they break the ingredients up into parts, like taco shell, bean filling, and cheese topping, all of which will have their own ingredient sub-listings that will carry the salt much closer to the end than if it were all combined as one food item. After all, “flour, water, salt” sounds innocuous as a taco shell ingredient list, but makes room for a lot of salt.

Of course, if there is just way too much fat, salt, sugar and calories, as there is in the case of those big single-serve cookies, then they just say that each cookie is two-and-a-half servings and the calories drop away before your eyes.  After all, very few people are going to check the serving size on a single cookie!

In most cases, from vegan breakfast burritos, to cheese fries, to, say, a frosted cinnamon roll, the fat, salt and sugar are both loaded and layered, creating vastly more caloric intake than most consumers intend.  Even the word “consumer” takes on a ghoulish tinge when food industry insiders openly refer to themselves as “manipulators of the consumer’s minds and desires.”

Another way we have been manipulated is that we have allowed the industry to dictate our portion sizes as well. Just sit down at any restaurant and take a look at the sheer amount that is brought to the table. Even good restaurants usually serve more than any one person should eat at one sitting. Add in large drinks, bread and butter, appetizers, soups or salads, and you’ve ordered enough calories to feed a small village. 

As the social norm for portion size is changed by the industry, it seeps into our home cooking, too. As a result, the average calories per serving of recipes that have been continuously published in The Joy of Cooking has jumped 63 percent in the past 70 years. This is due directly to changes in the amounts of fat, salt and sugar used, and to increases in the serving sizes.

In Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think, by Brian Wansink, Ph.D, the author has studied some of our behaviors regarding portions choices. He found that:

 • The “nutritional gatekeeper” of a home influences an estimated 72 percent of all of the food their family eats.

• Changing from 12-inch to 10-inch dinner plates causes people to serve and eat 22 percent less.

• People will drink 28 percent more when using short, wide glasses than tall, narrow ones.

 • A person will eat an average of 92 percent of any food they serve themselves.

• “Low-fat” labels lead people to eat 16-23 percent more total calories.

So Americans eat the wrong foods and more of them than we need.  We are challenged not only by our habits but by hazy reasoning, misperception and deliberate misinformation. But there is evidence on many fronts that we are making inroads.

While GreenStar helps support local initiatives like the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Snack Program at Beverly J. Martin Elementary School, First Lady Michelle Obama has begun a serious national initiative to improve childhood nutrition and health. She has asked the Grocery Manufacturers Association “to entirely rethink the products that you’re offering, the information that you provide about these products, and how you market those products to our children.” Mrs. Obama added, “That starts with revamping, or ramping up, your efforts to reformulate your products, particularly those aimed at kids, so that they have less fat, salt and sugar, and more of the nutrients that kids need.”

She has made appearances around the country, meeting with parents, schools, pediatricians and public officials, even members of her husband’s cabinet, talking about childhood obesity with the goal of solving the problem within a generation.

Of course, many of us at GreenStar we have always kept control of our kitchens. We use fresh ingredients and are more likely to watch our portion sizes. And, as spring turns to summer, it becomes easier to make better choices and shed some of our winter-gained weight. Even if we have picked up some of these habits, and perhaps a few pounds with them, the bard himself might suggest, “It is the mind that makes the body rich; and as the sun breaks through the darkest clouds, so honor peereth in the meanest habit.”

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