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How We Became a Society of Gluttonous Junk Food Addicts

Junk food is killing us slowly with diabetes, heart disease and cancer. But we can't stop because we're hooked, and the food industry is the pusher.

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Last year, in the wake of the economic meltdown, KFC launched the " 10 Dollar Challenge," inviting families to try to recreate a meal of seven pieces of fried chicken, four biscuits and a side for less than its asking price of 10 bucks. Of course this is a virtually impossible feat, apart from dumpster diving. But KFC isn’t hawking alfalfa sprouts and a plate of mashed yeast at that price. Witherly, in Why Humans Like Junk Food , writes that "high energy density food is associated with high food pleasure." The corporate food's revenue model is based on designing products oozing with fat, salt, sugar, umami and chemical flavors to turn us into addicts. 

While food companies can trot willing doctors, dieticians and nutritionists who claim that eating their brand of poison in moderation can be part of a balanced diet, the companies are like drug dealers who prey on junkies. As Morgan Spurlock explained about McDonald's in Supersize Me , the targets are "heavy users," who visit the Golden Arches at least once a week and "super heavy users,” who visit ten times a month or more. In fact, according to one study, super heavy users "make up approximately 75 percent of McDonald's sales."

Fast-food Addiction

Perhaps no company better exemplifies the intersection of factory farming, fast food and food addiction than McDonald's. It pioneered many of the practices of standardized, industrial food production that made it into a global behemoth. In 1966 McDonald's switched from about 175 different suppliers for fresh potatoes to J.R. Simplot Company’s frozen French fry. A few years later, McDonald's switched from a similar number of beef suppliers to just five. Within a decade, notes Eric Schlosser, McDonald's had gone from 725 outlets nationwide to more than 3,000. 

Tyson did the same with chicken, which was seen as a healthy alternative to red meat. It teamed up with McDonald's to launch the Chicken McNugget nationwide in 1983. Within one month McDonald's became the number two chicken buyer in the country, behind KFC. The McNugget also transformed chicken processing. Today, Tyson makes most of its money from processed chicken, selling its products to 90 of the 100 largest restaurant chains. As for the health benefits, Chicken McNuggets have twice as much fat per ounce as a hamburger.

The entire food industry, perhaps best described as "eatertainment," has refined the science of taking the cheap commodities pumped out by agribusiness and processing them into foodstuffs that are downright addictive. But food is far more than mere fuel. It is marketed as a salve for our emotional and psychological ills, as a social activity, a cultural outlet and entertainment.

Faced with little time to cook, bland industrial meat and drawn to exciting and addictive processed foods, most Americans gorge on convenience food. In 1900, the typical American woman spent six hours a day in food prep and cleanup. By last year, Americans on average took 31 minutes a day. For many, "cooking time" consists of opening up takeout containers, dumping the contents on a plate and throwing away the trash.

To get us in the door (or to pick up their product at the supermarket), food companies stoke our gustatory senses. The food has to be visually appealing, have the right feel, texture and smell. And most of all, it has to taste good. To that end, writes David Kessler in The End of Overeating, the food industry has honed in on the "three points of the compass" -- fat, salt and sugar.

One anonymous food-industry executive told Kessler, "Higher sugar, fat and salt make you want to eat more." The executive admitted food is designed to be "highly hedonic," and that the food industry is "the manipulator of the consumers' minds and desires."