David Kessler: Fat, Salt and Sugar Alter Brain Chemistry, Make Us Eat Junk Food

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By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 27, 2009

He went in the middle of the night, long after the last employee had locked up the Chili's Grill and Bar. He'd steer his car around the back, check to make sure no one was around and then quietly approach the dumpster.

If anyone noticed the man foraging through the trash, they would have assumed he was a vagrant. Except he was wearing black dress slacks and padded gardening gloves. "I'm surprised he didn't wear a tie," his wife said dryly.

The high-octane career path of David A. Kessler, the Harvard-trained doctor, lawyer, medical school dean and former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration had come to this: nocturnal dumpster diving. Sometimes, he would just reach in. Other times, he would climb in.

It took many of these forays until Kessler emerged with his prize: ingredient labels affixed to empty cardboard boxes that spelled out the fats, salt and sugar used to make the Southwestern Eggrolls, Boneless Shanghai Wings and other dishes served by the nation's second-largest restaurant chain.

Kessler was on a mission to understand a problem that has vexed him since childhood: why he can't resist certain foods.

His resulting theory, described in his new book, "The End of Overeating," is startling. Foods high in fat, salt and sugar alter the brain's chemistry in ways that compel people to overeat. "Much of the scientific research around overeating has been physiology -- what's going on in our body," he said. "The real question is what's going on in our brain."

The ingredient labels gave Kessler information the restaurant chain declined to provide when he asked for it. At the FDA, Kessler pushed through nutritional labels on foods sold through retail outlets but stopped short of requiring the same for restaurants. Yet if suppliers ship across state lines, as suppliers for Chili's do, the ingredients must be printed on the box. That is what led Kessler, one of the nation's leading public health figures, to hang around dumpsters across California.

The labels showed the foods were bathed in salt, fat and sugars, beyond what a diner might expect by reading the menu, Kessler said. The ingredient list for Southwestern Eggrolls mentioned salt eight different times; sugars showed up five times. The "egg rolls," which are deep-fried in fat, contain chicken that has been chopped up like meatloaf to give it a "melt in the mouth" quality that also makes it faster to eat. By the time a diner has finished this appetizer, she has consumed 910 calories, 57 grams of fat and 1,960 milligrams of sodium.

Instead of satisfying hunger, the salt-fat-sugar combination will stimulate that diner's brain to crave more, Kessler said. For many, the come-on offered by Lay's Potato Chips -- "Betcha can't eat just one" -- is scientifically accurate. And the food industry manipulates this neurological response, designing foods to induce people to eat more than they should or even want, Kessler found.

His theory, born out in a growing body of scientific research, has implications not just for the increasing number of Americans struggling with obesity but for health providers and policymakers.

"The challenge is how do we explain to America what's going on -- how do we break through and help people understand how their brains have been captured?" he said.

Kessler is best remembered for his investigation of the tobacco industry and attempts to place it under federal regulation while he was FDA commissioner from 1990 to 1997. Although he was appointed by George H.W. Bush, Kessler became popular among Democrats for his tough regulatory stance. He got the nickname "Eliot Knessler" after he authorized the U.S. attorney's office in Minnesota to seize a large quantity of Citrus Hill Fresh Choice orange juice in 1991 because it was labeled "fresh" when it was, in fact, partially processed. After he was elected in 1992, President Bill Clinton asked Kessler to continue to run the FDA.


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