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Dr. Kessler and The Power of a Chocolate Chip Cookie

This is an excerpt from an article in The New York Times; Health and you can read the whole article by clicking on the blue type. Dr. Kessler has written a book about how food is engineered to be irresistible. Yes, we all need to develop a little self-discipline. And yes, the decks are stacked against us.

Did you know that almost the entire taste of a potato chip is on it’s surface, designed to give you an immediate impact of taste?

This article talks about Dr. Kessler’s new book, and it’s implications for our food choices:
mare_chocolate_chocolate_chip_cookie_and_strawberry_gelato_sandwiches_h

(photo from Bon Appetit magazine chocolate chip cookie and strawberry gelato sandwiches)

As head of the Food and Drug Administration, Dr. David A. Kessler served two presidents and battled Congress and Big Tobacco. But the Harvard-educated pediatrician discovered he was helpless against the forces of a chocolate chip cookie.

In an experiment of one, Dr. Kessler tested his willpower by buying two gooey chocolate chip cookies that he didn’t plan to eat. At home, he found himself staring at the cookies, and even distracted by memories of the chocolate chunks and doughy peaks as he left the room. He left the house, and the cookies remained uneaten. Feeling triumphant, he stopped for coffee, saw cookies on the counter and gobbled one down.

“Why does that chocolate chip cookie have such power over me?” Dr. Kessler asked in an interview. “Is it the cookie, the representation of the cookie in my brain? I spent seven years trying to figure out the answer.”

The result of Dr. Kessler’s quest is a fascinating new book, “The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite” (Rodale).

During his time at the Food and Drug Administration, Dr. Kessler maintained a high profile, streamlining the agency, pushing for faster approval of drugs and overseeing the creation of the standardized nutrition label on food packaging. But Dr. Kessler is perhaps best known for his efforts to investigate and regulate the tobacco industry, and his accusation that cigarette makers intentionally manipulated nicotine content to make their products more addictive.

In “The End of Overeating,” Dr. Kessler finds some similarities in the food industry, which has combined and created foods in a way that taps into our brain circuitry and stimulates our desire for more.

When it comes to stimulating our brains, Dr. Kessler noted, individual ingredients aren’t particularly potent. But by combining fats, sugar and salt in innumerable ways, food makers have essentially tapped into the brain’s reward system, creating a feedback loop that stimulates our desire to eat and leaves us wanting more and more even when we’re full.

Dr. Kessler isn’t convinced that food makers fully understand the neuroscience of the forces they have unleashed, but food companies certainly understand human behavior, taste preferences and desire. In fact, he offers descriptions of how restaurants and food makers manipulate ingredients to reach the aptly named “bliss point.” Foods that contain too little or too much sugar, fat or salt are either bland or overwhelming. But food scientists work hard to reach the precise point at which we derive the greatest pleasure from fat, sugar and salt.

The result is that chain restaurants like Chili’s cook up “hyper-palatable food that requires little chewing and goes down easily,” he notes. And Dr. Kessler reports that the Snickers bar, for instance, is “extraordinarily well engineered.” As we chew it, the sugar dissolves, the fat melts and the caramel traps the peanuts so the entire combination of flavors is blissfully experienced in the mouth at the same time.

Foods rich in sugar and fat are relatively recent arrivals on the food landscape, Dr. Kessler noted. But today, foods are more than just a combination of ingredients. They are highly complex creations, loaded up with layer upon layer of stimulating tastes that result in a multisensory experience for the brain. Food companies “design food for irresistibility,” Dr. Kessler noted. “It’s been part of their business plans.”

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June 24, 2009 - Posted by | Chocolate, Customer Service, Food, Health Issues, Marketing, Shopping, Social Issues |

1 Comment »

  1. I read the NY Times article, too and immediately downloaded Dr. Kessler’s book from Audible.com. I’ll listen to it as soon as I finish Geraldine Brooks’ “People of the Book,” which so far is excellent. I love food science so I am very interested in Dr. Kessler’s book, plus I am always suckered by those huge restaurant meals in the States and on my next visit I want to be on my best food behavior!

    Comment by globalgal | June 28, 2009 | Reply


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