Many doctors call processed foods the number one enemy of our health. They are extremely high in calories, which is bad enough, but combined with the fact that a lot of people simply can't stop eating them leads to a worldwide weight problem that's only getting worse. Obesity can lead to a number of chronic health problems like heart disease, cancer, and depression to name just a few. In fact, the second leading risk factor for developing complications from Covid-19 behind age is obesity.
Processed foods barely existed just fifty years ago, yet now rake in about one trillion dollars each year and are projected to increase their market share by 4% annually in the coming years. In just a generation, we've witnessed these packaged products being virtually unseen at the local market to now making up ninety percent of grocery store shelves. Health experts say three-fourths of the calories most Americans consume come from processed foods.
Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Michael Moss looked into why we as a culture have become increasingly obsessed with processed foods. He discovered it's not an accident, but rather a deeply manipulative plan on the part of the food industry giants to make more money regardless of the health implications.
"I've been crawling through the underbelly of the processed food industry for ten years now," he told CBN News, "And I continue to be shocked by the level of their cunning, deviousness, if you will, in being able to figure out what draws us to the products...to not just like them...but want more and more."
Exploiting Our Weaknesses
In his book, Hooked: Food, Free Will and How the Food Giants Exploit Our Addictions, Moss claims food companies intentionally make their products addictive by first understanding our vulnerabilities and then taking advantage of them.
"Biologically, these deep instincts we have make us incredibly vulnerable to overeating," he said.
For example, our bodies are designed to naturally crave sugar, fat, and salt. Processed food is packed with highly condensed amounts of each, much more than we use in home cooking.
"They get the brain excited," Moss explained, "And it sends a signal saying, 'Wow, Michael, I love that. Can I have some more of that?'"
To feed that craving, food manufacturers can add som 56 different types of sugar to their products creating an expectation that everything we consume should taste sweet.
"Our brain doesn't say, 'Oh wait a minute, Michael, you just ate two-thousand calories in that snack bag. Stop. Wait a minute.' Your brain is going to be put to sleep and say, 'OK, let's have some more. Great taste,'" Moss said.
Texture, Low Price, Lots of Choices
Getting us hooked on great taste is only the beginning. The processed food industry also spends a lot of time and money engineering just the right texture in their foods and drinks. Smooth, bubbly, crunchy or an irresistible blend of different textures can trigger our brains to crave more. Food makers even have a term for it: "mouthfeel" and a ranking system. The greater the "mouthfeel," the greater the consumption, the more money made.
Getting the price down, often by using less healthy ingredients, is another strategy because it increases a product's likeability.
"But it's also something that sends that signal to the brain, 'Wow I love the cheapness of this food. I want more of it,'" Moss said.
Food manufacturers understand we get excited by anything new. So they constantly add to an already wide variety, knowing it' nearly impossible to resist all the choices.
"It's called the 'smorgasbord effect,'" Moss explained, "And its why you can eat at a smorgasbord, fill up until you're stuffed, but then look down the table and see something new and go, "OK, I can fit that in.'"
Disguised As Healthy, Convenient
These food giants take advantage of our desire to feel like we're making healthy choices. Believe it or not, they also make some of our most popular diet foods using the same tricks to get us hooked.
"But really when you looked at the ingredients and the nutrition they weren't all that different from their full-calorie foods," Moss said.
Plastering healthy-sounding buzz words like "protein" and "fiber" on packages can also mislead.
"And so they're adding protein to sugary cereal that's still probably not so healthy for you," Moss said, "They are putting in lots of fiber in products and touting that on the label even though a lot of that fiber really doesn't work to fill you up like fiber should."
Food companies exploit our desire to make eating easy.
"Convenience is another one of those big driving forces," Moss said.
Protect Your Health
So now that we understand the tricks of the trade, how do we defend ourselves? Whenever possible, cook at home from scratch. It doesn't have to be complicated or time-consuming. For example, it only takes five minutes to cook fish in a pan on the stove while microwaving a sweet potato.
Moss says the opposite of processed foods is whole foods. These are foods that closely resemble their natural form. They can generally be found around the perimeter of the grocery store such as in the produce, fish, meat, and dairy departments. Generally, the processed foods are in the center of the store. There are some exceptions, however, such as canned fish, tomatoes, and beans as well as frozen blueberries, raw nuts, and olives.