Make It Soft and Sweet: How Companies Get Us to Overeat

Steven Guyenet is a smart dude.

I like his blog, Whole Health Source quite a bit, and have learned a great deal about alternative hypotheses of obesity. It’s actually quite a mental exercise to think about the motivations and desires that contribute to overeating as the process integrates both the psychological with the physiological, giving our desires a body and form, rather than just being out there in the ether, so to speak.

But the food industry is smarter.

I mean, thinking about palatibility, the food reward hypothesis, neural pathways in the limbic system, the nucleus accumbens, and ventromedial hypothalamus,exomorphins, endocannibanoids, studies on rats eating a cafeteria diet, humans eating a cafeteria diet, etc. is really interesting and important from my perspective.

I like clear theories that make sense physiologically and anatomically, and whose principles can make sense in the real world. It’s probably one of the reasons I like reading and studying about nutrition is that I can see if those things are correct in my own life-my own real world-which you can’t always do when you read a paper on physics. Most of us, after all, do not have access to an atom-smasher.

So, I find it really interesting when I read something Guyenet writes, or any of the people I follow on the blogs and forums because I can try it out myself. And if it doesn’t work, well that’s okay. (Sidenote: You know the disclaimer, right? Before you decide to do anything that might be dangerous, check with your doctor! But also be careful too, he might tell you to get on the treadmill and have a Powerbar afterwards! But seriously, I am not providing advice to anyone here!)

But I know that the food industry is smarter than both me and Guyenet, and has been for a long time.

No, they aren’t as dedicated to the pursuit of understanding how our bodies work in order to find ways to make it work better, live longer, and feel happier. They are not dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge and truth to help us guide and inform our decisions so we can make the best one possible. They don’t write thoughtful blogs which allow you to comment and share your ideas, either. The food industry has no such high ideals.

They want to sell product.

But they have a problem.

You see, unlike most other capitalist enterprises, selling food has a limit, and it’s your stomach. After all, if you eat, you will eventually get full and stop eating. (Unless, you are that guy in the Monty Python movie who explodes from overeating. I will spare you the YouTube video-find it yourself)

It’s called the fixed stomach problem, and I came across a brief explanation of it in Micheal Pollan’s book, The Omnivore’s dilemma. The food industry actually developed this term as a way of expressing their basic problem: people can not go oninfinitely eating and eating because they will get full, ie they have a stomach. As a result, to sell more product the food industry needs a way to find people to eat as much as they can. That is, they have to maximize the amount that people will eat in order to combat the problem that they have stomachs, and can not go on continually eating, ad infinitum.

Guyenet is a smart dude. There is no doubt about this because he is figuring out, in essence, how they do it, and he is also studying that process in hh detail and sharing it in his blog, which is highly enlightening. But the fact is: The food industry is smart. They’ve been doing this awhile, and they know what it takes to sell a lot of food. And it’s basically this: sweet and soft. Add a little reinforcing flavors like cola and chocolate, an infinite shelf life, and of course, a cheap price and you have the recipe for foods that people will (a) like (b) like a lot (c) eat and (d) repeat.

No, the food industry is not particularly smart or knowledgeable or scientific or anything else that Guyenet is. But they have smarts, ie they know what works, and they hit it hard and efficiently. That’s why they are billion dollar corporations. They have identified a problem along their supply and demand chain (the fixed stomach problem), and they have applied a solution to solve it, and it basically works.

They are smart because they have smarts.

At this point, let me briefly explain what I mean by soft and sweet, as it is basically a rough theory that came to me while reading Micheal Pollan’s book and Guyenet’s blog (as well is J. Stanton’s blog, Gnolls.org, as well a few others). I may be saying the same thing someone else said in a different way, but I think its essentially the way how the food industry has in many ways successfully addressed the fixed stomach problem. As a result, unless we totally avoid these foods, we will overeat them.

Basically, as I see it, our human ancestors evolved with the ability to identify and choose nutrient dense foods. And by nutrient dense foods, I specifically mean macro-nutrient dense foods (ie fats, proteins, and carbohydrates), which basically translates into foods that have both the highest calories and most energy in a readily usable form. Our ancestors were good at finding these foods because if they weren’t, none of us would be here. Survival after all is ultimately the struggle to consume more energy than you expend, and the battle for calories is basically where it all begins.

In nature, the most nutrient dense foods is meat, for sure. But what part? Actually it’s not skeletal muscle, which is what we eat the most of today, but rather marrow and organ meats because they have a very high fat as well as protein content. And guess what? Organ meats and marrow are soft. And though liver and onions are generally not a favorite of many people, pate, foie gras, and menudo are. (I loved Ricky Martin in that band. He was reallyLivin’ La Vida Low Carb back then too, eh?)

A good question, then, does this happen anywhere else in nature? And it does, in fact, in one of our favorite omnivBBBBores: the bear.

You know those beautiful pictures of bears snapping up the leaping salmon rushing upstream to spawn? I love those myself, but what I never realized is that bear doesn’t always actually eat the whole salmon. In fact, the part we pay 15 dollars a pound for, the skeletal muscle meat, is many times, depending on the bears hunger, left for the birds to pick at. What the bear eat is the nutrient-dense insides (as well as the skin and brains), and often leaves the rest. Often they don’t waste their time because they need the most easily digestible calories they can get before they hibernate.

The common denominator here is food softness. Yes, food that is soft is generally considered more palatable than food that is hard because we are ultimately hard-wired from nature to process that signal of softness as very yummy and eat more, please.

Ripe fruits are soft as well, which makes them pleasing, but they also have the added bonus of having a lot simple sugars which not only makes them sweet, but also makes them a great source of quick energy as well. And in addition, the sugar rush/energy boost that follows is also a very pleasant and reinforcing feeling for most.

And then if you also consider with human mastery of fire, that people could now transform foods into a form that allowed us to utilize its nutrients much more easily by making them soft, eg something like beans that need to be cooked and softened to be edible, as well as sweet, eg think of sweating onions and carrots in a pan and how they turn sweet, it is easy to see how an industrial process could be applied to create cheap food that people will eat a lot more of than they need to or should.

And that seems to be what has happened, as I see it. The food industry, through intense processing of their foods, have made products which are very sweet and very soft, multiplying these effects way beyond anything you could ever possibly find in nature. Think of any Little Debbie snack or Hostess Treat, or even think of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on white bread, a lunch most parents give their kids. All soft. All sweet. All processed.

I also think salty foods and soft foods are another equation that the food industry uses quite frequently to successfully have people eat a lot of their products. I myself will always tend to overeat things like Mac and Cheese, Hamburger Helper, Casseroles and the like, and try to avoid them. But I think these foods generally need to be prepared at home, and take some effort, which makes them not as frequently consumed as say, vending machine fare.

Also, If you have read William Davis’ great book, Wheat Belly, then you know that the whole purpose of hybridizing wheat was not only to increase yield, but to modify the gluten so bread would be more dense, doughy, soft, and gooey.

Yes, the food industry is smart.

They have figured out the economics of appetite to increase consumption of their products.

And they have smarts.

They have created a boundless array of products that are soft and sweet in ways that nature never intended.

But at least now you know, and hopefully, this information will help you become a more conscious eater because although the food industry may be smart, you don’t have be outsmarted.

Eat well, friends!

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