The next section of the End of Overeating includes a lot of stories of different restaurants, foods, and techniques for generating repeat business. I think an excerpt quoted from the first such illustration will give you a sense for the way this section of the book is constructed. It’s very interesting, I think, and will change the way you read restaurant menus.
The first story involves Dr. Kessler’s observation of an overweight woman eating the Southwestern Eggrolls at a Chili’s Bar & Grill in O’Hare airport.
I watched as the woman attacked her food with vigor and speed. She held the egg roll in one hand, dunked it into the sauce, and brought it to her mouth while using the fork in her other hand to scoop up more sauce. Occasionally she reached over and speared some of her companion’s french fries. The woman ate steadily, working her way around the plate with scant pause for conversation or rest. When she finally paused, only a little lettuce was left.
Next, he provides the report from his industry source on the actual contents of that woman’s meal.
The woman might have been interested in how my industry source, who had called sugar, fat, and salt the three points of the compass, described her entree. Deep-frying the tortilla drives down its water content from 40 percent to about 5 percent and replaces the rest with fat. “The tortilla is really going to absorb a lot of fat,” he said. “It looks like an egg roll is supposed to look, which is crispy and brown on the outside.”
The food consultant read through other ingredients on the label, keeping up a running commentary as he did. “Cooked white meat chicken, binder added, smoke flavor. People like smoky flavor — it’s the caveman in them.”
“There’s green stuff in there,” he said, noting the spinach. “That makes me feel like I’m eating something healthy.”
“Shredded Monterey Jack cheese…. The increase in per-capita consumption of cheese is off the chart.”
The hot peppers, he said, “add a little spice, but not too much to kill everything else off.”
He believed the chicken had been chopped and formed much like a meat loaf, with binders added, which makes those calories easy to swallow. Ingredients that hold moisture, including autolyzed yeast extract, sodium phosphate, and soy protein concentrate, further soften the food. I noticed that salt appeared eight times on the label and that sweeteners were there five times, in the form of corn-syrup solids, molasses, honey, brown sugar, and sugar.
“This is highly processed?” I asked.
“Absolutely, yes. All of this has been processed such that you can wolf it down fast … chopped up and made ultrapalatable … Very appealing looking, very high pleasure in the food, very high caloric density. Rules out all that stuff you have to chew.”
By eliminating the need to chew, modern food processing techniques allow us to eat faster. “When you’re eating these things, you’ve had 500, 600, 800, 900 calories before you know it,” said the consultant. “Literally before you know it.” Refined food simply melts in the mouth.
Dr. Kessler goes on to examine other foods and restaurants and performs the same sort of analysis on each. Food has become a form of relatively cheap entertainment for us. In a later chapter, a restaurant concept designer calls processed food a sort of “adult baby food.” Basically, they are trying to make food irresistible and largely succeeding through a wide array of techniques, including extensive use of chemical flavorings. I like the way he summarizes it in the final chapter in this section.
In industry shorthand, it all comes down to the difference between brown cows and purple cows, according to marketing expert Seth Godin. Brown cows are products that, while perfectly adequate, are fundamentally boring. But a product that’s a purple cow — now, that’s something that stands out. “The essence of the Purple Cow,” writes Godin, “is that it would be remarkable. Something remarkable is worth talking about, worth paying attention to.”
And that’s what the food industry is trying to develop.
How many of your memorable dining experiences have been “purple cows”? Think about it for a bit.