A Rose by Any Other Name

So I’m perusing one of my favorite food sites, Eater: San Diego, to see what food insanity is gripping my fair burgh today, and I come across a link to this click-bait article, “How ‘Hyperpalatable’ Foods Could Turn You Into A Food Addict” which I was unable to resist reading.

It features a photo of a Taco Waffle from Taco Bell and opens with the usual alarmist lead-in: “Over a third of the global population is now overweight, and the percentages are increasing.” Wow, not just the US, the world! It jumps to the punch line in the next sentence: “Some neuroscientists have suggested that the rise of so-called “hyperpalatable foods” may partially explain the unprecedented rates of obesity. ”

“Some” neuroscientists. Not nutritionists, not a panel of public health researchers. Some neuroscientists. Then, we’re provided some new vocabulary for our reading delectation – hyperpalatable foods. They even put it in scare quotes to make sure we notice it. Then, it’s off to the bad, reductionist food science races!

We’re shown a table comparing individual pieces of low calorie produce to commercially prepared and packed foods to let us see just how bad these suckers are. Of course, they might have done everyone a service by comparing the commercially prepared items to comparable dishes prepared at home and at various restaurants, but then the shock factor wouldn’t be so strong.

Next on the menu is a promotion of someone’s book with a “Buy now” button that will return money to the io9 website. Nope, no possible conflict of journalistic interest here, folks. It does sound like an interesting bit of insider dirt dishing by the former head of the FDA bitching about the food industry that he was supposed to be regulating. The great crime? That corporations in the food business prepare “hyper-palatable” (geez, kids, can’t we get the spelling consistent?) foods that are really, really yummy and leave us wanting to eat them again.

Now, we’re ready for the real action, food addiction, the ultimate medicalization of food with a nice side of illegal behavior. And we finally find the neuroscientists. This, of course, is the much promoted study that showed a certain brain protein in rats reacts more strongly to Oreo cookies than it does to “addictive substance like cocaine.” Huh. I’m willing to buy that this was an accurate measurement, but is it addiction? Was it specifically Oreo cookies that did this, or was it a chemical in Oreos that is present in many kinds of food? Actually, um, none of the above. They just tested the brains of rats who consistently ran through a maze to a cookie rather than a rice cake, and found that the C-Fos protein level was higher than when the test was done comparing the rat’s preferences when offered a choice between a salty drink and morphine. The idea that really liking Oreos more than rice cakes (and they didn’t even give the poor rats the caramel apple flavored cakes!) is enough to claim cookies cause food addiction is reaching awfully hard for an obesity angle. The head researcher immediately pointed out how this will affect those stupid poor people more because, well, they are the ones this icky stuff is marketed to.

Back to the current article. Then we try to show by generalization and overstatement that really, really, really liking certain foods can be described in the same way as the seven diagnostic criteria for substance dependence according to the DSM-IV. No, really, they do this. And the article follows up this bit of tomfoolery with “If it looks like a duck…” Then we’re off to try to correlate what is obviously addition to a wide swath of eating disorders like bulemia.

We wrap up with a somber attempt to tackle the problem of food addiction, which has neatly been identified as wanting to eat Taco Bell and Oreos and DiGiorno frozen pizza. Oh, and anything from McDonald’s. Like the roads, that goes without saying. The article invokes public health strategies used for other addictive substances, like heavily taxing hyperpalatable foods the way cigarettes are taxed, reduce access to these foods in vending machines, and preventing corporations from expanding into third world markets.

There are so many agendas packed in here that teasing out the different parts is like trying to wiggle the first pickle loose from the pickle jar.

Let’s start with the use of the term “hyperpalatable.” As mentioned above, the mark of hyperpalatable food is that it tastes really good and is something you would really like to eat again. In my neck of the woods, that’s known as good cooking. It’s what I expect to have on the plate in front of me, whether I’ve prepared the meal myself, purchased something to consume at another location, or am visiting a dining establishment.

The chief problem food puritans face when trying to gain control over other people’s eating is that food is good – it is necessary for life and often it is a physical pleasure to consume.They resent the first and live in horror of the second. Food is, at best, a necessary evil and we should never take pleasure in the food itself, only is the moral goodness attaching itself to a particular food item, like is it organic, does it taste like left-over grass clippings, is it too expensive for ordinary shoppers to purchase, and so forth. To advance their arguments, they must deploy a rhetorical strategy that makes pleasure as such a cause for concern. They concoct a nomenclature that denatures the visceral experience of eating and converts it to something dangerous.

Notice how the perfectly ordinary experience of taking pleasure in what you consume is problematized, medicalized, and alienated from the eater. The food is not “delicious,” it is “hyperpalatable.” It doesn’t have pleasing textures, it “goes down easily.” We’re not having a meal, we’re participating in “conditioned hypereating,” because having a candy bar or some fries or a slice of pizza couldn’t possibly be something we would do under our own volition. We’re being tricked into eating this terrible, fatty, sugary food! Someone slap a pair of handcuffs on Aunt Mary before she bakes quiejadas again! (And, if you ever get an opportunity to eat quiejadas, do it. OMG they are so good!)

The final big thing to pay attention to in this article is how circumscribed the world of hyperpalatable food is. It’s what poor people eat. It’s what working families with declining income eat. It’s what non-foodies and people who don’t choose to go to upscale, hip eateries (or who can’t afford them – same difference in the paternalistic mind) (No, I’m not joking. In rational choice theory, the inability to afford a purchase is considered equivalent to being able to afford it, but choosing not to purchase. The less well off  “choose” not to spend their food dollars on the good things that we virtuous upper-middle class people do pay for.)

The foods singled out for opprobrium are:

  • Sold by down-market eateries (Taco Bell, Chili’s)
  • Appear in snack food aisles (Oreos)
  • Soda

Like drug problems, they are the problem of the underclass, the unfortunate, the passive and the infantalized. This kind of food addiction is something other people indulge in, the poor, child-like things can’t help themselves because it’s so addictive, so we smarter, better, people with greater consumption rectitude will structure their environment to keep them from consuming the sinful substances.

Here’s the problem. Food prepared from fresh, wholesome and organic ingredients can be just as (if not more) laden with sugar, salt and fat as their commercially produced counterparts. But, you see, in the upscale world of the Foodies, their word is not “hyperpalatable;” their word is “umami.” Their dishes are served up in nice restaurants and hip food stands, and their processed foods are high end chocolates and energy bars, not Snickers and Nature Valley Granola. They eat quality food, not junk food.

Last month I went to a local joint called Carnitas Snack Shack. I highly recommend it. The food there is fucking AWESOME. What did I have? Deep-fried empanadas stuffed with pork sausage and served with a chipotle remoulade (that’s fancy spicy mayonnaise) and split an order of seasoned fries with the Spousal Unit. Those fries were crispy to the point of crackling, left grease marks on the wrapping paper, and had so much salt and seasonings on them they dessicated my lips. My meal was lovingly made by hand with locally sourced ingredients, attention to flavor and supporting sustainable agriculture. It was also, in a word, hyperpalatable. It was loaded with salt, fat, and, yes, sugar. It was designed to make me want more, more, MOAR!!!! It completely fit the definition of the medicalized and demonized food served by the McDonald’s up the street, except it was probably half again as caloric and salt-laden. And we could buy beer to go with it, the true mark of a quality eating establishment in North Park.

The month before that, we took a business associate of the SU’s who had flown in from out of town out to a local, award winning restaurant. It is a leader in doing food the right way, with organic this, and sustainable that, and a really, really great craft beer selection. No corporate processed crap here, no siree bob! The meal was hyperpalatable to the max. The servings were generous, the stuff was drenched in oil and butter, there were tasty little umami bombs of relishes, and sauces, and jams, and spreads; everything was divine. Everything made me want to eat every last bite on my plate, even though it was enough food for three people.

It seems that addictive, hyperpalatable food is just peachy as long as it doesn’t get purchased by a harried working mother grabbing a box out of the frozen case at Ralphs. She should know better. Why doesn’t she buy the organic kale (at $2.89 a bunch) and organic free range chicken (at $6.00/lb.) and organic lemons ($1.00/each) and imported, salt-packed capers ($6.49/bottle) and imported, European butter from grass fed cows ($4.75/lb.) and imported sea salt ($2.78/jar) and go home and cook some home made piccata instead of being such a lazy bitch shoving poison at her kids? It only takes an hour to prepare. Oh, and be sure to serve it with whole wheat, gluten-free pasta (or better yet rice pasta! Or quinoa!). Organic of course…

The disconnect between what the slovenly lower classes are supposed to do with their food dollars and choices and what the upper middle class arrogates to itself is breathtaking.

It is a stinking rose, though not half so tasty.


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Posted in Food, Health, Politics

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