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Gonzo Gastronomy: How the Food Industry Has Made Bacon a Weapon of Mass Destruction

The confluence of factory farming, the boom in fast food and manipulation of consumer taste created processed foods that can hook us like drugs.
 
 
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Among my fondest childhood memories is savoring a strip of perfectly cooked bacon that had just been dragged through a puddle of maple syrup. It was an illicit pleasure; varnishing the fatty, salty, smoky bacon with sweet arboreal sap felt taboo. How could such simple ingredients produce such riotous flavors?

That was then. Today, you don't need to tax yourself applying syrup to bacon -- McDonald's does it for you with the McGriddle. It conveniently takes an egg, American cheese and pork and nestles it between pancakelike biscuits suffused with genuine fake-maple-syrup flavor.

The McGriddle is just one moment in an era of extreme food combinations -- a moment in which bacon plays a starring role, from high cuisine to low.

There is: bacon ice cream; bacon-infused vodka; deep-fried bacon; chocolate-dipped bacon; bacon-wrapped hot dogs filled with cheese (which are fried, then battered and fried again); brioche bread pudding smothered in bacon sauce; hard-boiled eggs coated in mayonnaise encased in bacon -- called, appropriately, the "heart attack snack"; bacon salt; bacon doughnuts, cupcakes and cookies; bacon mints; "baconnaise," which Jon Stewart described as "for people who want to get heart disease but [are] too lazy to actually make bacon"; Wendy's "Baconnator" -- six strips of bacon mounded atop a half-pound cheeseburger -- which sold 25 million in its first eight weeks; and the outlandish bacon explosion -- a barbecued meat brick composed of 2 pounds of bacon wrapped around 2 pounds of sausage.

It's easy to dismiss this gonzo gastronomy as typical American excess best followed with a Lipitor chaser. Behind the proliferation of bacon offerings, however, is a confluence of government policy, factory farming, the boom in fast food and manipulation of consumer taste that has turned bacon into a weapon of mass destruction.  

While bacon's harmful effects were once limited to individual consumers, its production in vast porcine cities has become an environmental disaster. The system of industrialized hog (and beef and poultry) farming that has developed over the last 40 years turns out to be ideal for breeding novel strains of deadly pathogens, such as the current pandemic of swine flu. If a new killer virus appears, like the Spanish flu that killed tens of millions after World War I, factory farms will have played a central role in its genesis. 

Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) churn out cheap, but flavorless, meat. However, for the CAFOs to exist there must be demand for the product. That's where the industrial food sector comes in. Chains like McDonald's, Chili's, Taco Bell, Applebee's and Pizza Hut approach the tasteless, limp factory beef, pork and chicken as a blank canvas with which to create highly enticing, even addictive, foods by pumping it full of fat, salt, sugar and chemical flavorings.

The chains lard on bacon in particular as a high-profit method of adding an item that has a "high flavor profile," a "one-of-a-kind product that has no taste substitute." According to David Kessler, author of The End of Overeating, a standard joke in the restaurant chain industry goes, "When in doubt, throw cheese and bacon on it."

More than that, notes Kessler, the food industry uses science and marketing to try to make its products addictive. By manipulating what he calls the "three points of the compass" -- fat, sugar and salt -- the food industry creates highly processed foods that can hook us like drugs. In various countries and regions, the levels of fat, sugar and salt are even calibrated to different "bliss points" to maximize the consumers' pleasure.

Kessler talks to one scientist who studied lab mice that were willing to work nearly as hard to get doses of Ensure, a drink high in fat and sugar, as they were to get hits of cocaine. One food company executive calls his industry "the manipulator of the consumers' minds and desires."