The Trinity of Addiction and its Environmental Health impacts
A recent article in the New York Times Magazine spoke mainly to the public health problem of processed food and obesity, but also contained an undercurrent about environmental health and how the industry sells food designed to addict.
According to the World Health Organization, “Environmental health addresses all the physical, chemical, and biological factors external to a person, and all the related factors impacting behaviours. It encompasses the assessment and control of those environmental factors that can potentially affect health. It is targeted towards preventing disease and creating health-supportive environments.”
In the minds of many Americans, environmental health is associated with food safety issues: we are aware of the use of herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers, and genetically modified organisms that contaminate the soybeans, strawberries, and apples we eat. Despite the organic revolution, Americans continue to grow and eat food designed by companies like Monsanto, where products include chemical ‘killers’ and seeds resistant to those very same ‘killers.’
The New York Times article made me wonder whether food processing companies like Frito-Lay should evoke the same iconic images as companies like Monsanto. Has the processed food industry taken pointers from the tobacco industry, where litigation dredged up industry memos showing that chemicals were added solely to increase addiction?
As with many environmental health problems, the military played a crucial role in the evolution of America’s food processing industry. I wish I had known the story of food industry legend, Howard Moskowitz, when I was a midshipman at the Naval Academy and ate meals-ready-to-eat (MREs) in the field. The Army hired Moskowitz to figure out how to get soldiers to eat more rations while in the field. In the course of his research, Moskowitz identified the tendency for distinct flavors to overwhelm the brain and suppress the desire for more. My approach to MRE-fatigue was rudimentary: I hid donuts in my pockets before field training exercises and wondered how soldiers got by when they could not sneak donuts from the chow hall.
Clearly, the processed food industry giants are far more sophisticated than I was. Companies like Kraft, PepsiCo, and General Foods now use this information about cravings and food fatigue known as “sensory-specific satiety” to develop complex formulas that pique the taste buds enough to be intriguing, but not overwhelming enough to tell the brain to stop eating.
So what do these formulas contain? The perfect combination of salt, sugar, and fat packaged as a ‘food’ that will melt in your mouth. It may come as no surprise that a medical study identified the potato chip as the largest weight inducing food. Why do we love potato chips? Bite into America’s snack of choice and you will experience addiction in the making: sugar from the potato’s starch, fat to bring your brain instant feelings of pleasure, and a salt lining to keep you wanting more.
The trinity of addiction used by the food processing industry keeps us eating. Similar to nicotine in cigarettes, the addition of salt is bad for our health and makes us crave more harm. Sodium chloride (salt) is a crystal-like chemical compound abundant in nature, added to food for flavor and preservation.
Even though salt is found in nature, it must be used by humans in moderation. According to the FDA, salt contains the chemical element, sodium, which in excess in our diet can lead to an increased risk of heart disease, kidney disease, and stroke because the sodium in salt attracts water which increases the volume of blood in our body and forces the heart, blood vessels, and organs to work harder.
Nutrition advocates called for federal regulators to reclassify salts as a ‘risky’ food additive so that it would be subject to more severe controls, but companies like Frito-Lay used science to defend salt and thwart the health concerns because people get addicted to salt, and addiction sells.
Cravings experts found that people can beat their salt habits by refraining from salty foods long enough for their taste buds to return to a normal level of sensitivity. But so long as salt falls into the category deemed “generally recognized as safe,” manufacturers can use as much salt in products as they want and are only required to report the amount on nutrition labels.
Over 30 years have passed since the chief scientist for Frito-Lay tried to get the company to use snack formulas that would ease the American addiction to salt, sugar, and fat. But there is hope: a recent effort was launched by the FDA and FSIS to identify opportunities to reduce sodium in food so that consumers can have more control over their dietary intake. A chemical used by the food processing industry for flavor, and to leave us craving more, is now under fire for its detrimental health impacts. The food processing industry must now come to the table and break bread with nutrition advocates.