Feed Us Not Into Temptation

Hot Dog and Fries

We’ve seen it on bumper stickers and t-shirts, a saying that is short and to the point:

I can resist anything except temptation.

Ain’t it the truth! Especially when it’s an obese person wearing the t-shirt. And that goes double when the person in the shirt is a walking statistic in the childhood obesity epidemic. A fat kid knows at a young age that she or he has been singled out by fate to be the butt of other people’s jokes. Some adopt the strategy of telling the joke first. And it’s all because of this thing called temptation, the impulse that makes us live to eat, instead of eat to live.

Making food taste good has always been an art, but when it became a science, that’s when things got out of hand. There is an entire field of human endeavor devoted to guaranteeing that nutritionally mediocre food becomes a temptation. It makes us an offer we can’t refuse: bliss, for the price of an ice cream bar, and highly pleasurable, hedonic food that is specially engineered to be irresistible.

By now, everybody has heard of umami, which is unscientifically called the “fifth taste” (the others being salty, sweet, bitter, and sour). A fascinating and in-depth article by Anneli Rufus goes into the history of umami, and explains what it is exactly. Rufus has published several books, including The Party Girl Cookbook, Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant, and most recently, The Scavenger’s Manifesto.

Basically, umami is an amino acid, specifically glutamic acid, and it shows up naturally in fermented, aged, ripened sorts of foods like Parmesan cheese and soy sauce. Somebody discovered how to manufacture a concentrated form of it called monosodium glutamate (MSG) that can be added to just about any food to give it that extra zing.

Rufus interviewed a retired hospital administrator, Jack Samuels, who has a special interest in MSG because, like around 40% of Americans, he finds that it causes bad physical reactions. His website is a central clearinghouse for information about MSG side effects. The author says,

At TruthinLabeling.org, he proffers an endless stream of statistics and studies linking MSG with obesity, migraines, asthma, brain damage, seizures, heart irregularities, lesions in the hypothalamus, and other horrors.

The milder forms of MSG discomfort comprise what used to be called Chinese Restaurant Syndrome, only now, as Samuels points out, it’s more like Every Restaurant Syndrome, because MSG is darn near ubiquitous. When reading food labels at the supermarket, you can find it smuggled in under such names as yeast extract, hydrolized vegetable protein, and sodium caseinate. Rufus says,

MSG is the prime suspect in ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome,’ the postprandial numbness, tingling, headaches and heart palpitations first identified by Maryland physician Robert Ho Man Kwok in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1968. A battle-of-the-researchers has raged ever since, with competing studies insisting that MSG both is and isn’t good for you.

Most of the studies that prove umami is beneficent are (no surprise here) commissioned and paid for by Ajinomoto, a corporation that makes over $180 million a year on the stuff. Ajinomoto also does plenty of defensive and preemptive advertising to keep us using its product. But the real core of this article is Rufus’ explanation of the theories of a fellow named Seth Roberts. So, please do yourself a favor and read up on this substance whose sole purpose is to make food more tempting.

Temptation is all around us, in slick magazines and on billboards, and especially on television. Hour after hour, the average TV viewer sees extreme closeup shots of gooey, glistening pizza, or cookies dripping with chocolate, or foot-long hot dogs whose buns ooze rivulets of spicy chili and creamy melted cheese. Ken Leebow, author of Feed Your Head, has collected a gruesome gallery of these. They are as lurid as the covers of old-time pulp novels.

Comedian Don Novello, in the character of Father Guido Sarducci, created a classic bit outlining his plan for the Five-Minute University. Now, Ken Leebow gives us the Five-Minute University version of an entire health and fitness curriculum in 14 words. So, we get up in the morning ready to follow his advice, and what happens? Our eyeballs are assaulted by the images of pseudo-foods and ersatz edibles and food-like substances with minimal nutritional value that will probably make us sick in the long run, if not immediately. But they look so good!

Not many people can endure such a temptation marathon without giving in. Something deep inside tells us it’s time to raid the refrigerator or phone for takeout. Or even grab a package of those little, deadly, chocolate-coated doughnuts that don’t even taste that good, but somehow you love them anyway.

No wonder so many of us are overweight or obese! Every time we feel bad about a bump in the road of life, whether it’s a minor irritation or a major tragedy, a purveyor of hedonic foodstuffs is right there, suggesting that eating the product will heal our pain and help us cope. And even home cooking can be dangerous if we are not careful. As Dr. Pretlow says,

Eating primarily for pleasure, rather than nutrition, is the great American pastime. I certainly don’t mean to condemn pleasurable foods, but in some individuals even everyday cooking, if laden with sugar, salt, and fat, can become a problem. Using everyday cooking for a ‘flavor rush’ may still be using food to cope. In a segment of the population, this may result in dependence on those foods and inability to control the eating.

Addictive or not, at least, home cooking has the extra added ingredient of being prepared with consciousness and love rather than extruded from an assembly line. But either way, the temptation of hedonic food has the underlying “pleasure-canceling-pain” basis. Just like opiates. And when hedonic food keeps its promise, the power of its addictive hold increases. Dr. Pretlow again:

Hedonic foods are addictive, plain and simple! The pleasure of the foods cancels emotional pain for the time it takes to consume them and perhaps during the anticipation phase and after thoughts. But once the pleasure fades, reality comes crashing back in that we’ve done something that will now make our lives more miserable. That misery causes the cycle to repeat, further strengthening the addictive hold of the hedonic foods. Thus, the toxic food environment is the precipitant not the cause of the obesity epidemic.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Do We Really Have a 5th Taste? What Is the Umami Fad All About?,” AlterNet.org, 06/12/10
Image by Dan4th (Dan4th Nicholas), used under its Creative Commons license.

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