Monday, December 28, 2009

Our most popular drug is made of sugar, fat and salt

On NPR not long ago I heard an interesting thought.

Suppose a hundred years ago that someone wanted to eat chicken. They had to go out, grab the chicken, cut its head off, pluck it, clean it, then cook it. That was just what it meant to eat chicken. Today that seems crazy. But in a hundred years that is how cooking will look.

Indeed, that is true for a lot of people. Just think how many people eat out more often than not. Or eat packaged meals. Cooking takes work, and most of us don't want to put out that effort if someone else is willing to do it for us.

On the surface that is quite reasonable. And I will confess to succumbing to the temptation quite a few times. I'm no food snob, and don't particularly enjoy cooking.

But all that notwithstanding I think that most of us should cook more. You'll be healthier. You'll eat better food. And it needn't take as much energy as you think.

Let me start with the health issues. My source here is The End of Overeating by David Kessler.

The problem that every commercial food distributer faces is getting people to buy their food. Preferably frequently and in quantity. People have a lot of reasons for buying food, but the three most important are named sugar, fat and salt. Individually we are attracted to each, however we reach a point where we saturate on any one of them. If you combine 2 of those, however, we are attracted to much higher concentrations than we are if you separate them. And combining all 3 hits a sweet spot where we want far higher concentrations than we would accept independently. Not only do we crave higher concentrations, but we experience a pleasurable rush of brain chemicals. In the pursuit of that pleasure we routinely overeat past the point of satiation. Then want to eat that way again when we recover. And this is why you're fat.

This principle is simple, effective, and well understood through the food industry. Whether you're a manufacturer designing a new kind of cheese puff or a restaurant trying to build a clientele you have to do the same thing. Deliver the magic combination of sugar, fat and salt and you can succeed. Fail to, and people will inevitably flock to the competitor who is willing to do it. The food industry has heard and obeyed. Whether it means giving us salads that are mainly a vehicle for delivering dressing (a base of oil with sugar and salt), or offering apparently healthy chickens that have been preprocessed with the injection of a syrup with sugar, fat and salt (this is why it falls apart so easily in your mouth) all of our processed food is a drug delivery mechanism.

The phrase "drug delivery mechanism" may seem overblown. It is not. The effects on our brain chemistry really do resemble an addict getting drugs. And measurements in animals of how motivated they are to get the reward show that modern processed food is only slightly less motivating than cocaine

Obviously there is some variation. But this is one of the prime reasons that obesity has expanded from being a fairly rare disorder to being about a third of the population. And today obesity is seen in ever younger people, and is more and more extreme. It would seem that the drug affects different people differently, and you can see from your waistline how much you are affected. (I'm hit about average, I weigh an extra 20 pounds or so.)

Of course this drug isn't exactly good for our bodies. It is no accident that the leading diseases tied to modern lifestyles are heart attack, stroke, diabetes and hypertension - all of which are tied to what we eat. Not that long ago I talked with someone who had a heart issue and just went to a cardiologist for the first time. The first lifestyle question he asked was, "How often do you eat out?" Note that where you eat out doesn't matter, because the entire industry has the message. They all know the game, and all are going to deliver the same drug. Ditto the manufacturers of processed food.

However if you go and cook food at home, you don't need to worry. You won't hit the sweet spot very easily because you lack the equipment to do it. You'll actually have to chew your chicken because before cooking you didn't break down the internal structure and fill it full of sugar, fat and salt.

The other interesting thing about cooking food at home is that it tastes better. Let's be clear, you won't crave it as much. If you've got one plate with fish you grilled at home, and another with potato chips, it will be the chips that you can't keep your hands off of. However the fish will be more enjoyable.

Let me give a concrete example. When I married my wife, her family was into pancakes made from mix. I've noticed two things about pancakes made from mix. The first is that they don't taste very good. The second is that they don't save you much work. Seriously you can't make the pancake until the pan is hot, right? Well it takes about as long to make the batter as to make the pan hot, and you do those at the same time. Therefore the mix didn't save you time!

Now when I tell people this, many claim that the pancakes they make from a mix taste great. And I tell them that they think that only because they've never had a decent pancake. Try that recipe, then come back and compare. (A funny story about that particular recipe. I had a co-worker who I gave that recipe to who it turned out had a friend who had been raving about my sister's pancakes for 30 years but didn't know how to make them! My friend was happy to be able to pass it along.)

All that said, when someone who doesn't cook faces cooking, it is scary. You don't know how anything works or what anything does. In reality all you need to do is get a recipe, follow directions, and it tends to work out. When you get brave you can experiment. Sometimes the experiments flop. But even that isn't a bid deal.

For instance yesterday I made turkey soup. It was going great until I added noodles. I envisioned firm noodles, and so it was at dinner because I put them in at the right time. But the noodles in the pot didn't stop cooking. So now instead of turkey soup I now have soggy turkey casserole. However it still tastes good and is still good for us. And I won't make that mistake again next year!

So stretch yourself. Look for an easy recipe and cook a meal. Even if you never come to enjoy cooking particularly much, you may find it worthwhile. And who knows, perhaps you'll turn out to be someone who enjoys cooking. Try it!


Unknown said...

Ben, you should try adding sweet potato to your pancake mix, it adds a really good flavor, on top of the benefits.

What I do is get a bag of sweet potatoes from Trader Joe's, and wet a papertower, wrap it around two or three sweet potates, and microwave them for 6 minutes. Then break them open and mix them in a mixer with water added. You can keep the mix in the refrigerator to apply to your daily pancake mix as needed.

Thanks for that blog, very interesting.

Ben Tilly said...

What pancake mix? I always make my pancakes from scratch! :-)

I suspect that that sweet potatoes would not be good for the texture of buttermilk pancakes. If you've tried it and it works, then I'll consider it. But if not, I'd look for a different recipe first.

I tried a random potato pancake recipe off of the internet once. My kids didn't like it. Perhaps they'd like sweet potatoes better though?

jeff B said...

Gotta agree with your article. I did a whole lot of research about food and the industry over the past several years and it is disturbing how all processed food is nothing more than a pile of drugs surround by temptation.

And my realizations got me on a correct path of eating much better, generally preferring more natural untainted foods. But I am human and not above what temptation can do. I still find myself at times chugging down that pudding cup. Even though I know deep down the disturbing reality of what goes into it, I still suck it down like a cocaine addict. That in itself shows very well that there is a lot deeply wrong with the food supply. If want something good for you, as measured by your body's own standards, you will have to grow it yourself. The supermarket is a garbage filled wasteland.

Naveen said...

That's a good recipe, but if you want even fluffier pancakes for a little bit more work, add 1/2 cup of cornmeal, use 2 eggs instead of 1 egg, and instead of adding the eggs directly separate them, whip the whites and mix them into the batter at the end. Drop in some blueberries and you have the best blueberry pancakes ever!