Former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. He is a pediatrician and served as the dean of the medical schools at both Yale and the University of California, San Francisco. His latest book is titled The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite.
From the McDonald’s McGriddle to Wendy’s "Baconator" to "baconnaise" to bacon-infused vodka, bacon has become a ubiquitous ingredient in many diets in this era of extreme food combinations. Arun Gupta of The Indypendent writes, "Behind the proliferation of bacon offerings 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." [includes rush transcript]
We’re joined here in our firehouse studio by Arun Gupta, journalist, editor of The Indypendent newspaper in New York. He’s writing a book on the decline of American empire for Haymarket Books. His latest article is published at Alternet.org and The Indypendent, and it’s called "Gonzo Gastronomy: How the Food Industry Has Made Bacon a Weapon of Mass Destruction," looking at how industrial farming is central to the processed food industry. Arun also happens to be a trained chef, a graduate of the French Culinary Institute.
As well, we’re joined from Link TV’s studios in San Francisco by Dr. David Kessler, who is the former FDA commissioner, has written the book The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite.
I’m Amy Goodman, with Anjali Kamat. I’ve been trying to keep this away from Anjali right now, which is the bacon, egg McGriddles — oh, and cheese. As Dr. Kessler said, “When in doubt, add bacon and cheese.”
Arun, can you describe what we’re looking at right now?
Sure. What this is, is — I became fascinated by this, because this is essentially the childhood product of bacon soaked in maple syrup. And a few years ago, McDonald’s turned this into an actual product, the McGriddle. These are pancake-like biscuits that take the filling for an Egg McMuffin, which is an egg, a pork product, in this case bacon, and cheese. And it’s exactly what Dr. David Kessler talks about, where it’s just layers of fat, salt and sugar. You know, for instance, the muffin itself is white flour, refined flour, which is essentially sugar, and it’s injected with three types of fat. There’s salt. The egg is fat and salt. The bacon is fat, salt and flavorings. The cheese is fat and salt. And then it’s topped by another biscuit, which, again, is fat, salt and sugar. So, this fits in with exactly what Dr. Kessler is talking about, how we’re being fed these infinite variations of fat, salt and sugar that are highly addictive.
Another aspect that’s interesting about it is the bacon has, actually, eighteen ingredients. You wouldn’t think that bacon would have eighteen ingredients. Six of these are apparently types of umami. Now, umami is Japanese for — it’s the fifth flavor, after sweet, salty, sour and bitter. And it’s loosely translated as “deliciousness.” It’s meaty, savory flavor. And it’s highly addictive, and it has a response on our neurochemicals also. And so, McDonald’s pumps this with all sorts of umami. This is something I’ve been looking at. A lot of our foods are pumped with all sorts of umami, everything from savory foods to ice cream, because it elicits an actual neurochemical, physiological response.
I want you to put that down, because the grease is dripping, and I don’t want it to drip on the table, so we’ll put it on that piece of paper.
Yeah, this thing has something like 80 percent of your daily intake of cholesterol. I mean, you know, it’s absolutely deadly, even though it’s relatively tiny.
How many ingredients in the scrambled egg?
Well, there are a lot of ingredients because of the margarine that’s used. It’s something like a dozen ingredients in the scrambled egg alone, most of them coming from the margarine.
And this issue of flavoring that you talk overall about?
This is another way to get us hooked on foods. You know, the fat, sugar and salt are very important, but also there are certain flavors, like with bacon. Bacon plays a very key role because of the smoked flavor.
In fact, there’s a lot of writing being done about this now, that there’s kind of a link to our evolutionary past. It evokes these sensations to cooked foods that humans evolved — cooking predates humanity, actually, by up to a million years. And so, we evolved in conjunction with cooked foods.
And bacon is loaded with all sorts of smoke flavorings, artificial. It’s rare that you get natural smoked bacon these days. And then the umami, of course. And it has — what is bacon? It’s pretty much just salt and fat. And then, in a case like this, it’s loaded with the sugar. So, you just get all these various addictive qualities that really try and key in on particular senses.
And, Arun, why bacon as a weapon of mass destruction? And take us back a little bit to how this links to industrial farming and hog farming.
Yeah. Well, I was trying to understand it, because, as someone who cooks a lot and goes to a lot of parties, I’ve just been noticing a tremendous proliferation of bacon in all sorts of various ways. I went to a brunch a few months ago, where someone had actually made bacon vodka and bacon ice cream. And I also noticed in popular culture that it was becoming very common, like there’s this Wendy’s Baconator sandwich, which has six strips of bacon, and it was wildly successful when it was introduced in 2007. It sold 25 million units just in the first eight weeks.
Now, bacon is the end of this food chain, and it is, you know, that joke about “when in doubt, throw cheese and bacon on it.” In the high end, in the gourmet cooking industry, chefs always joke about “bacon makes everything taste better.” It does play this key role.
But it starts from — the vast majority of it starts in these factory farms. And what happened is — you have to go back to the Great Depression, where the government policy essentially started to encourage consolidation of farming as part of national food security. And after World War II, the government had — the US government had all this surplus food, because it was trying to shore up the agricultural sector. So it used this food in a policy that became known as “aid and trade.” We would first give food to countries as aid. Once they’d get hooked on it, we would trade with them. But what this did was it encouraged consolidation of the farming sector, because we would then subsidize those farmers who were most technologically efficient, who were doing monoculture — in other words, doing one crop — because it was economy of scale, because you could direct the inputs better. And so, the farming sector shrank drastically from 1940 to 1970. In 1940, 18 percent of the populace was still farmers; by 1970, it was 4.6 percent. And so, all this subsidies, essentially, what it did is it created the condition for the concentrated animal-feeding operations to arise.
People are very familiar with these. Eric Schlosser talks a lot about it in Fast Food Nation. Michael Pollan is another writer who talks about it a lot. But what they often don’t talk about is how government policy played this big factor, because there was cheap water, cheap grain, cheap fuel, cheap land, anti-union laws that allowed these factory farms to come into being.
But the thing is, these factory farms couldn’t exist if there wasn’t a market for these products, hence the rise of the fast food industry. And you start to see this in the ’60s and ’70s. For instance, where in the early ’60s McDonald’s was using 175 suppliers for potatoes, when it switched to the J.R. Simplot Company, which was able to provide them with this standardized frozen fry, McDonald’s exploded over the next decade. Fries are incredibly profitable. Its growth was something like 400 or 500 percent in terms of the number of restaurants opened.
And then, around 1980, Tyson, the poultry king, did the same with chicken. They worked with McDonald’s to introduce the Chicken McNugget. The irony of it was chicken, at that time, was seen as a healthy alternative to red meat. But through the industrial manufacturing, what you came out with was this highly addictive product, pumped full of all sorts of flavorings and chemicals that you would then dip in this fat- and sugar-, salt-laden sauce. And on average, a Chicken McNugget has twice as much fat as a McDonald’s hamburger.
And so, what the fast food and the processed food industry has done is they’ve taken these very cheap commodities from the factory farming system; it’s processed them, added a lot of value to itself in terms of profit; and then, essentially, made many of us addicted to them. And so, this all fits together, and bacon plays this key role. And so, what I was doing was trying to explain exactly how bacon ultimately becomes this weapon of mass destruction.
High-fructose corn syrup, Arun Gupta?
Well, this is another example of how government policy plays a role in our diet. High-fructose corn syrup is a derivative of corn. There’s massive subsidies for the corn industry. On its own, it couldn’t compete with sugar. But because of the subsidies, it brings down the cost of corn. Meanwhile, there’s also tariffs against the importation of sugar, allegedly to protect the domestic sugar industry. And so, what you have, on one level, is you’re bringing down the price of corn and its derivatives, like high-fructose corn syrup, through these subsidies. Then you’re raising the prices of alternatives through the tariffs. And so, you create this huge supply.
And it’s the same exact time that we see companies switch to high-fructose corn syrup, particularly in sodas. And you see this explosive growth. And there are a lot of researchers who argue that high-fructose corn syrup and our consumption of soda plays a key role in obesity. And so, we have to see that the government plays an essential role in terms of the food choices that we make today and the unhealthiness of America in general, and that, you know, if government is doing this, then we can say, well, the government, one, shouldn’t be doing this, and it should directing our money towards healthier, more productive and more sustainable systems.
And the “cheeseburger bill,” Arun Gupta?
This was passed, I think, about three or four years ago. The fast food industry essentially decided they didn’t want to become the equivalent of the tobacco sector, because what you were seeing was that a lot of the lawyers who went after big tobacco started to go after the fast food industry, because they were making the same argument, that they’re manipulating these ingredients to make people addicted to them, with the result that people are becoming obese. And we’re seeing these epidemic rates of heart disease and diabetes and also these rises in all sorts of cancers related to diet. And so, the food industry went to Congress and basically said, “We want immunity.” And that’s what they got. They now have complete immunity.
But it only passed in the House, did not pass in the Senate.
I think it did pass both houses of Congress.
Well, Dr. David Kessler, as you listen to Arun, your thoughts?
DR. DAVID KESSLER:
Fat and sugar, fat and salt, fat, sugar and salt, they stimulate us to eat more. The fact is, I mean, it’s not just the medical consequences. You know, there are millions of Americans that have this, you know, inner — almost inner torment. They don’t understand why they’re doing things, why they’re eating when they don’t want to be eating. And the fact is, I used to think that I was eating for nutrition, I was eating to be sustained, to be nourished. I didn’t realize that I was eating for stimulation.
Take a two-year-old. The average two-year-old compensates for their eating. What do I mean by that? You give that two-year-old more calories at lunch, they’ll eat fewer calories later in the day. By the time that two-year-old is four or five years of age, after they’ve been exposed to the modern American diet of fat, sugar and salt, they no longer are able to compensate. It’s as if the brain’s reward circuits override the body’s ability to self-regulate. We are conditioning the behavior of our children for a lifetime.
Just a comment on that bill, I do think that it was introduced repeatedly in the House and got passed, ultimately was not passed by the Senate. In fact, looking at some information, the Florida Congress member, the Republican Congress member Ric Keller, actually missed the vote — who had introduced it — because he was rushed to the hospital. But this kind of legislation, if you’re talking about this, what you’re really saying is a serious epidemic, Dr. Kessler.
DR. DAVID KESSLER:
It’s a very serious epidemic. But understand what this is going to take. This is going to take not just pieces of legislation. Legislation is important. But in the end, we’re going to have to view food differently. That’s the real difference. Once our behavior becomes conditioned and driven — you know, if I look it that plate of fries, I mean, or that bacon cheeseburger, you know, I say, “That’s my friend, right? I want that. That’s going to make me feel better,” I mean, there’s nothing I can do to get in between you and that food. We really are going to have to change how we view food in this country.
Food is so highly processed. I mean, it’s been so layered and loaded with fat, sugar and salt, it’s as if it’s predigested. You know, most of us are eating, you know, adult baby food most of the time. Twenty, thirty years ago, there were thirty — about twenty, thirty chews per bite. Today, it’s half that. Food goes down in a whoof, I mean, just, you know, in a whoosh. We’re self, you know, stimulating ourselves constantly. And we’ve taken fat, sugar and salt, and we’ve put it on every corner, and we’re eating all the time
And Dr. Kessler, speaking of, you know, how we eat and changing our food culture, can you talk about the issue of choice and availability? You have fast food restaurants and food laden with fat, sugar and salt, like you said, on every corner. But what are your recommendations to make healthy food more easily available, more easily affordable?
DR. DAVID KESSLER:
Be careful. You know, the fat, sugar and salt is being layered and loaded not just by the fast food restaurants, but by, you know, many restaurants, you know, across the economic spectrum.
You know, look at the French. They’ve always had food that’s been highly palatable, that’s been very good-tasting. What’s the difference? You know, what have they done? Because up until recently, they’ve not seen the kind of obesity that we have seen. You know, what they have done is they had certain norms where they eat with certain structure. They would never walk down the street eating or drinking. They would not eat in their cars. They wouldn’t have food 24/7 at business meetings. So, they have certain structure.
You know, we had this problem under control back four or five decades. We used to eat at meals. Today, what have we done in the United States? We’ve taken down those barriers. We are literally eating fat, sugar and salt all day long. There are children who go throughout the day without any sense at all of any sensation of hunger, because they’re eating constantly.
So, what do we need to do? Obviously, get rid of the food cues that are activating our brains. You know, try to avoid those. Eat with certain structure, eat in a planned way, so you’re not constantly being bombarded. But in the end, this is about changing your relationship with food.
I went into one of the restaurants here in San Francisco the other night, and I asked the chef, what’s the most important thing I can ask when I’m ordering something off the menu? It was a very interesting answer. He said, “Ask where the food comes from.” If the restaurant doesn’t know where the food is coming from, think twice before ordering it.
Finally, Arun Gupta, children and food, marketing to kids?
Well, this is a very important aspect. It’s one of the many things government should be doing. It should be completely banning all sorts of fast food and processed food marketing to children.
In a given month — this is from Fast Food Nation — over 90 percent of American children between the ages of three and eight visit a McDonald’s. That’s an absolutely stunning figure. And they’re constantly bombarded with these messages to eat this type of food.
And so, we can easily have government saying, like, no, we’re not going to allow this to be marketed to children so that they don’t form these unhealthy food habits from the beginning.
Well, this is only the beginning of the discussion. Arun Gupta, thanks so much for being with us, with The Indypendent, wrote "Gonzo Gastronomy: How the Food Industry Has Made Bacon a Weapon of Mass Destruction." And Dr. David Kessler, his new book The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite, former dean at Yale University Medical School. He’s a pediatrician, himself, former FDA commissioner, and also dean at University of California, San Francisco.
And that does it for the show. I want to dedicate today’s show to a wonderful woman, we lost her this weekend, Norma Spruch, who would have loved the broadcast today, a chef extraordinaire, loving mother of Caren and Gary, wife of Harvey.