Readers, today we have an enormous treat: An interview with a true thought leader in food, and one of Casual Kitchen's biggest influences, Dr. David Kessler.
Long-time CK readers of course know Dr. Kessler as the author of the exceptional book The End of Overeating, which exposed many of the food and restaurant industry's most pernicious and manipulative food processing techniques. His book completely reshaped how I think about food (you can read my rabidly positive review here), and it galvanized many CK readers to reconsider the suspect value of most processed foods and restaurant meals.
What readers may not know is that Kessler's book is just the tip of the iceberg of his career: Kessler ran the entire US Federal Drug Administration from 1990 to 1997, and he was a rare example of a senior government official who was able to work successfully under both a Republican and a Democratic President (George Bush Sr., who appointed him, and Bill Clinton, who kept him on). During his tenure FDA Commissioner, he was best known for dramatically increasing regulations on cigarettes, instituting many of our current food labeling requirements, and for stiffening the regulatory framework surrounding our food industry. After leaving government service, he served as the Dean of Yale Medical School.
I asked Dr. Kessler to talk about The End of Overeating for one simple reason: If there's ever a time of year we should read his book, it's right now during the holidays when we're surrounded and most tempted by processed, hyperpalatable and unhealthy foods. I'm grateful that he took the time to share insights about his book, about the food industry, and about the current state of overeating today.
Here's what he had to say:
CK: What's changed in the two and a half years since the publication of The End of Overeating? Are things improving in our culture with regard to obesity and our eating habits?
Dr. Kessler: It's been gratifying that new science continues to support the findings in The End of Overeating. I purposefully did not use the word "addiction" in the book, feeling it was a distraction, but scientists increasingly are using addiction science to look at the world of overeating and weight gain. The past two and a half years have seen an explosion in attention to this topic. Awareness and knowledge can only help us make informed decisions about what we eat.
What's the most important piece of advice you'd share with the average person who's up against the modern food industry?
It is most important to understand how huge portions of foods loaded and layered with sugar, fat, and salt can hijack the mechanisms of our brains. It's not always obvious what those foods are, so try to know what's in that chicken breast, as well as what's on that hamburger.
What's been the harshest, most unusual or most unsound criticism that you've received about The End of Overeating? And what reader responses to your book have most inspired you?
One criticism [I've received] is that I place the blame for the obesity epidemic on food companies, who are merely selling what the public wants, and not on individuals. I believe that corporations have a responsibility not to manipulate the brains of consumers. I believe individuals have the responsibility to understand they are being manipulated. I think that is clear to readers of The End of Overeating.
I am most inspired by readers who approach me after I have given a talk on the topics in the book and tell me that they felt for the first time as if someone knew what they were going through, that the science of that was a revelation, and their eating habits and lives had been changed forever. Heady stuff!
Some of the central ideas of your book--if taken to an extreme--can put us on uncomfortable ground. An example: if hyperpalatable food is truly bad, does this mean that the food industry should instead sell us "not-very-good-tasting food" so we won't eat so much? Is it really Big Food's fault that it merely sells the very food that we consumers consent to buy?
We've been conditioned to consume those loaded and layered foods. Believe it or not, once you know what's in those products, they can become "not-very-good-tasting food." Foods that are not highly processed, real foods, can taste good once we break the cycle of eating hyperpalatable foods. Food companies have long known what sells. Now they know the science of why. What is their responsibility once they have that knowledge?
You were appointed to run the FDA in 1990 under bipartisan support. You've successfully served under presidents of both the right and the left. If President Obama took you aside and asked you for your top policy suggestions on the subject of heath, diet and the business of food, what would you tell him?
What I tell all policy-makers is what I've said in my answers to your questions. Policies about truth in food marketing, food labeling, farm subsidies, etc., should be informed, as all good public health policy is, by the science.
Readers, share your thoughts and opinions!
Four Steps to Put an End to Overeating
The Pros and Cons of Restaurant Calorie Labeling Laws
Obesity and the Obama Administration: A Blogger Roundtable Discussion
Who's Watching the Watchdogs? Ethical Problems in the "Ten Riskiest Foods" Report By the CSPI
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