According to The End of Overeating by David Kessler, a dramatic rise in ‘overeating’ began in the United States in the 1980s, which led to an increase people’s average weight and obesity. What caused the increase in ‘overeating’? Commercial sellers of food became more competent at making food ‘hyperpalatable’ by using new food processing techniques which made it cheaper to ‘load’ foods with sugar, fat, and salt and add a variety of appealing textures and flavors (provided by industrial chemical processing), while making food easier to chew and make it ‘melt’ more in the mouth so people can fill themselves with more calories before they feel full; this combined with improvements in ‘eatertainment’ which enable firms to entice customers to buy more and more (and then eat more and more). On top of all that, there has been a change in norms – whereas in France (and maybe previously in the United States, Kessler hints) people only ate during official meals, now eating outside of mealtimes has been de-stigmatized, with food being included in more and more workplaces/social events/etc., and people being more used to ‘snacking’ outside of mealtimes.
Much of this wasn’t news to me, but there were details I wasn’t aware of before, and I hadn’t seen it presented in this particular way before. In particular, I hadn’t encountered the insight that it was improvements in food processing technology which allowed companies to produce more ‘hyperpalatable’ foods at lower cost.
This calls to mind something Lucy Worsley says in If Walls Could Talk – that for most of British history, the upper class tried to eat the most processed food possible, and went to great lengths to get more highly processed food, as well as novel flavors (hence the high price of imported spices). Back then, food processing was very labor intensive, and thus expensive. According to The End of Overeating, it’s only in the past few decades that increased mechanization of food processing has allowed restaurants and food retailers to overcome ‘chopping disease’ (i.e. the labor costs of hand-processed food) and make highly-processed food more widely available.
I am familiar with ‘chopping disease’ from my own home-cooking experience. I used to chop a lot of onions and garlic, even though I dislike the task – it takes time, lots of repetitive motions, the watery eyes (for onions), the really fine chopping required for garlic – and I had to keep inventory of my fresh onions and garlic. Now, I use onion powder and garlic powder instead. Yes, it’s more highly processed than fresh onions and garlic, and onion powder doesn’t provide the texture of chopped onions, but it is ~way easier~. No chopping, and a much longer shelf-life. I still incorporate many other chopped vegetables in my cooking (for example, I chopped an eggplant today), I still sometimes chop leeks and green onions, but I am grateful that onion and garlic powder are available for sale to make home cooking less labor-intensive.
(Reading Kessler’s descriptions of what makes foods ‘hyperpalatable’ had one unintended effect on me; it helped me appreciate more the qualities in the food I eat which make them ‘palatable’ and led me to add a couple new twists in my home cooking. I think Kessler was trying to persuade me to eat less food, or to start looking at my food as an ‘enemy’ or something, but instead it led me to loving the food I eat a little more.)
And yet, even Kessler’s own information shows that ‘overeating’ can’t fully explain the rise of obesity in the United States. His analysis of the Reno study “one of the largest, most comprehensive studies ever conducted on how people eat” shows that 50% of obese study participants “demonstrated features of conditioned hypereating” – which means that half of the obese study participants didn’t have signs of ‘conditioned hypereating’. Kessler focuses so much on ‘overeating’ that it sometimes seems that he think it’s the primary reason that there are so many obese people in the United States, but this data suggests otherwise.
I wasn’t alive in the 1960s, so I don’t have any memories to check against Kessler’s claims. But I have lived in a society where overweight and obese people are less common: Taiwan. Furthermore, I’ve spent years living on a Taiwanese, not American, diet. This is my point of comparison to see if Kessler’s claims are consistent with my own observations in life.
The first thing which jumps out to me is that … Taiwanese food is stereotypically full of sugar, fat, and salt, just like the so-called “Standard American Diet/Western Pattern Diet”. In fact, I recall many other Americans in Taiwan categorizing Taiwanese food in general as ‘junk food’.
When many people think of Taiwanese food, they think about night markets. Here is a video tour of a Taiwanese night market I like, the Miaokou Market in Keelung (note: I generally don’t like Taiwanese night markets, so the fact that I liked the Miaokou Market means that it is one of the best). I’m surprised that there isn’t more deep-fried food shown in the video, since Taiwanese night markets typically offer lots of deep-fried foods; I can see that they are passing many dessert stalls by looking at the signs in the videos, even though they aren’t stopping at them. Nonetheless, I think one can tell by looking at the video that night market food tends to have fat, salt, and sugar, and by the quantity of food that you see the guides eating, you can also see that night markets are good at inducing customers to order (and eat) more and more food.
Heck, night markets (and anywhere there are street food vendors in Taiwan, even if they aren’t organized into a night market), they sell bottled sugarcane juice. If that doesn’t count as a ‘sugar’ drink, I don’t know what would.
And snacking at any time is considered acceptable in Taiwan. Food vendors of many kinds are readily available 24/7 in any urban area in Taiwan – there were far more places selling food within a 5-minute walk from my apartment in Taoyuan than my current home in San Francisco. One has to be in a very rural part of Taiwan to get away from the convenience stores.
So how is the culinary environment in Taiwan different from the one in the United States which Kessler claims promotes ‘conditioned hypereating’.
I can think of a few differences:
– Due to the prevalence of lactose intolerance, Taiwanese people eat way, way, WAY less dairy products than Americans
– Soda drinks (Coca-cola, Sprite, Pepsi, etc,) are very unpopular in Taiwan – I can’t recall a single instance of seeing anyone buy or drink soda in Taiwan. Taiwanese people do drink a lot of beverages with added sugar and/or fat (mostly tea, sometimes coffee), but perhaps there is something special about carbonization
– Night market food portions do tend to be small. In practice, this leads to customers buying many small portions so that they can sample as many foods as possible. One reason I don’t like night markets is that I noticed that it was cheaper to order a filling meal in a restaurant than to try to get full stomach at a night market. But maybe many Taiwanese people are better at limiting portions than I give them credit for
– Restaurant portions are generally smaller in Taiwan than the United States
– Vegetables and fiber-rich foods are more widely eaten in Taiwan than in the United States (I noticed in the video that I linked that they eat something with bamboo shoots)
However, the biggest possible difference I can think of that might be consistent with Kessler’s claims is that food in Taiwan is generally less processed. Even at the convenience store chains, two staple snack items are 1) raw bananas and 2) freshly baked sweet potatoes. There are also many highly processed foods at Taiwanese convenience stores, but I know that I, personally, tended to buy less-processed food in Taiwanese convenience stores than in American convenience stores. One of the most common street snacks in Taiwan is: raw guava (with toppings, but the toppings are usually optional). And generally, the food industry, from the farmers to the grocers and restaurants, is much less centralized in Taiwan than in the United States. Thus, there is less economy-of-scale for intense food processing, which mean that, on average, food is less processed. I don’t believe that those foods sold at the night market are prepared from scratch, but they are probably less processed than their American equivalents.
Heck, even sugarcane juice isn’t highly processed – many street vendors will pull out sugarcane stalks and extract the juice before your eyes to prove that their sugarcane juice is fresh-squeezed. You can see it in this video (okay, the video is from Cambodia, but it’s similar to what you can expect from a Taiwanese sugarcane-juice vendor).
There are downsides to having a less centralized/standardized food system (like taking for granted that I would get mild food poisoning 2-3 times a year). I don’t know how it would be possible to have the same level of regulation of food in Taiwan as in the United States; by the same token, I wonder if government regulations here favor highly concentrated food conglomerates, and if that’s one of the reasons so much of our food supply is controlled by a relatively small number of corporations.
All of the above is speculation; I suspect that Kessler’s analysis is missing something big, or at least is missing so many small things that the missing pieces add up to something big.