Is Engineering Healthier Junk Food The Answer To Obesity?

healthyjunkfoodBy Jacquie Eubanks BSN, RN

“Healthy junk food” sounds like an oxymoron.  Can such foods really exist?  And if healthy junk food and highly processed food is not enough to convince you to start paying attention to your diet in relation to your health, will “engineered food” created by the same corporate giants who helped to create the obesity epidemic persuade you?  The recent article published in the July issue of the Atlantic, “The Cure For Obesity – How Science Is Engineering Healthy Junk Food” by David Freedman, is garnering a lot of attention.  Freedman attempts to make the claim that a healthy, nutritious diet comprised of local, unprocessed, whole fresh foods is not the answer to the national obesity epidemic but simply the dream of upper class, wealthy food writers and celebrity chefs.  He claims the answer to America’s obesity crisis may be the evolving science of processed food and the ongoing engineering of junk food that Americans can’t seem to resist. 

There is hard science behind food addiction.  Scientists working for industrialized food giants have already manipulated our food pleasure centers by creating the exact combinations of sugar, salt and unhealthy fat to reach what the industry calls our “bliss point,” or the perfect amounts of these ingredients to keep you craving, buying and consuming more.  Our taste buds are wired for sweetness and food scientists have figured out the Goldilocks formula, not too little, not too much.  Salt is maximized for “flavor burst” which hits the tongue immediately and then races to the pleasure centers of the brain.  The  quest for the perfect amount of fat equates to the “mouthfeel” or the pleasurable sensation of warm, gooey melted cheese.   Another popular phenomenon known as “vanishing caloric density,” is exemplified by products that, as they melt in your mouth, are meant to fool your brain into thinking the calories have vanished as well, essentially tricking us into eating more. 

The fact is food giants don’t care about nutrition.  They care about creating optimized foods by scientifically designing their products, designing product presentation and marketing to attract consumers, increasing their shelf space to gain a larger market share, and increasing their profit margins thereby lining their pockets with your money at the expense of your health.  There is no doubt that corporations have the right to make a profit.  What they don’t have is the right to make a profit by manipulating the American public with products that increase our health risks by contributing to obesity, heart disease, diabetes, metabolic syndrome and other serious health conditions. 

In his article, Freedman asserts that whole foods can contain as much sugar, fat and salt as fast foods if prepared according to certain recipes that may include sea salt, olive oil or sugar and  therefore can be just as calorie laden and unhealthy as fast food.  While he does admit that people (himself included) whose diets include whole, unadulterated foods tend to be wealthier, healthier in general, exercise more, don’t smoke, have better access to health care and are more likely maintain their weight, he argues that the wholesome food movement is not the answer to the obesity crisis.  He states that the average obese American is typically poor, is surrounded by people with similar eating habits, and tends to live where fresh produce is hard to find, too expensive, or of poor quality.  He expresses doubts that fresh, unprocessed, inexpensive healthier foods could be made readily available to the masses quickly enough to make a difference in the obesity numbers and that people are still going to make the same unhealthy choices.  He argues that “the wholesome-food movement is not only talking up dietary strategies that are unlikely to help most obese Americans; it is, in various ways, getting in the way of strategies that could work better.”  Changing the food habits of the general population is an enormous endeavor but does that mean it’s not worth the challenge? 

Freedman argues that Big Food is already preparing for the challenge and fast food corporations are introducing lower calorie and less fatty versions of some its popular menu items.  The premise here is that reducing fat and calories of fast foods would not make the food a healthy choice but would make it better than the full fat versions.  Still, some in the industry are not prepared to give people credit for making healthier food choices and feel that in order to sell healthier versions of its meals they would have to “sneak” in the healthier ingredients and insist they can reduce calories by as much as 30% in some foods by reducing portion sizes and adding ingredients that contain more fiber or water without people noticing the difference in taste.  Frankenburger, anyone? 

There’s no question that any daily calorie reduction is better than none.  But would a Big Mac Combo Meal, containing 1250 calories, 40 grams of fat, 123 grams of carbohydrates and 51 grams of sugar, reduced by 100 calories really make a difference in people’s health and longevity?  Freedman insists that it’s a small step in the right direction.  The assumption that Americans would not make healthy choices if healthier choices were offered, affordable, and readily available means that Americans better get used to the fact that their longevity may be shortened by as many as 10 years and their quality of life may be greatly reduced for many years before that.  In order to stem the tide of rising obesity rates, food corporations will need to stop relying on their customer’s personal responsibility as a defense argument and address the unhealthy and addictive nature of their food offerings. 

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