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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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This food is even designed to be pre-digested. Factory-farmed meats are ground up, injected with salt, water, a multitude of flavorings and chemicals, reconstituted and often processed with extra fat (like the McNugget). Speaking to an expert in "sensory stimulation and food," Kessler explains how food is engineered to deliver pleasing flavors, aromatic and textural sensations and dissolve easily in the mouth. He writes: "in the past Americans typically chewed a mouthful of food 25 times before it was ready to be swallowed; now the average American chews only ten times." Even the bolus -- the wad of chewed food -- is designed to be smooth and even. It's "adult baby food."

Referencing studies with either humans or lab animals, Kessler shows how varying concentrations and combinations of fat and sugar intensify neurochemicals, much the same way cocaine does. One professor of psychiatry explains that people self-administer food in search of "different stimulating and sedating effects," just as is done with a "speedball" -- which combines cocaine and heroin.

Kessler deconstructs numerous restaurant chain foods to show they are nothing more than layers of fat, salt and sugar. A reoccurring item is "bacon-cheese fries," a coronary event on a plate that displays dazzling engineering precision. One food consultant calls it "cheap filler" in which "20 cents' worth of product gets me $5 worth of wow." The expert in sensory stimulation explains, "Adding more fat gives me more flavor. It gives me more salt. And that bacon gives me a lot more lubricity." A food scientist for Frito-Lay describes the textural appeal: "You've got some pieces that are crispy on the outside, soft on the inside. It's warm. It's probably gooey, stringy, so you have to use your fingers a lot to eat it, and you have to lick your fingers. It's all multisensory."

Or take the McGriddle, which can be deconstructed along the "three points of the compass." It starts with a "cake" made of refined wheat flour, essentially a sugar, pumped with vegetable shortening, three kinds of sugar and salt. This cradles an egg, cheese and bacon topped by another cake. Thus, the McGriddle, from the bottom up, is fat, salt, sugar, fat, then fat and salt in the cheese, fat and salt in the bacon, finished off with fat, salt and sugar. And this doesn't indicate how highly processed the sandwich is. McDonald's bacon, a presumably simple product, lists 18 separate ingredients, including what appears to be six separate sources of umami.

The success of the McGriddle and sandwiches like Wendy's Baconator, which mounds six strips of bacon atop a half-pound cheeseburger and sold 25 million in its first eight weeks, has inspired an arms-race-like escalation among chain restaurants. Burger King has a near-identical imitation with the French Toast Sandwich. In 2004 Hardee's went thermonuclear with its 1,420-calorie, 107-grams-of-fat-laden "Monster Thickburger." And people are gobbling them up.

Perhaps you feel smug (and nauseated) by all this because you are a vegetarian, a vegan or a locavore, or you only eat organic and artisanal foods. Don't. Americans are under the thrall of the food industry. More than half the population eats fast food at least once a week; 92 percent eat fast food every month; and "Every month about 90 percent of American children between the ages of three and nine visit a McDonald's," states Schlosser.

We know this food is killing us slowly with diabetes, heart disease and cancer. But we can't stop because we are addicts, and the food industry is the pusher. Even if can completely opt out (which is almost impossible), it's still our land that is being ravaged, our water and air that is being poisoned, our dollars that are subsidizing the destruction, our public health that is at risk from bacterial and viral plagues.