What Big Food Knows About Weight Loss
During my trip to L.A., I also visited a Carl’s Jr. Inside, the biggest and most prominent posters in the store were pushing a new grilled-cod sandwich. It actually looked pretty good, but it wasn’t quite lunchtime, and I just wanted a cup of coffee. I went to the counter to order, but before I could say anything, the cashier greeted me and asked, “Would you like to try our new Charbroiled Atlantic Cod Fish Sandwich today?” Oh, well, sure, why not? The sandwich was delicious and took less than a minute to prepare. In some ways, it was the best meal I had in L.A., and it was probably the healthiest.
So why couldn’t Big Food’s processing and marketing genius be put to use on more genuinely healthier foods? Wouldn’t that present a more plausible answer to America’s junk-food problem than ordering up 50,000 new farmers’ markets featuring locally grown organic squash blossoms?
In fact, McDonald’s has quietly been making healthy changes for years, shrinking portion sizes, reducing fats, trimming average salt content by more than 10 percent in the past couple of years alone, and adding fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy, and oatmeal. In May, the chain dropped its Angus third-pounders and announced a new line of quarter-pound burgers, to be served on buns with whole grains. “We think a lot about how we can bring nutritionally balanced meals that include enough protein along with the tastes and satisfaction that have an appetite-tiding effect,” says Barbara Booth, the company’s director of sensory science.
Such steps are enormously promising, says Jamy Ard, MD, an epidemiology and preventive-medicine researcher at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and a co-director of the Weight Management Center there. “Processed food is a key part of our environment, and it needs to be part of the equation,” he explains. “If you can reduce fat and calories by only a small amount in a Big Mac, it still won’t be a health food, but it wouldn’t be as bad, and that could have a huge impact on us.”
Dr. Ard, who has been working for more than a decade with the obese poor, has little patience for the wholesome-food movement’s call to eliminate fast food in favor of farm-fresh goods. “It’s really naive,” he says. “Fast food became popular because it’s tasty and convenient and cheap. It makes a lot more sense to look for small, beneficial changes in that food than it does to hold out for big changes in what people eat that have no realistic chance of happening.”
Americans get 11 percent of their calories, on average, from fast food—a number that’s almost certainly much higher among some segments of the population. As a result, the fast-food industry may be uniquely positioned to improve our diets. Research suggests that calorie counts in a meal can be trimmed by as much as 30 percent without eaters noticing—by, for example, reducing portion sizes and swapping in ingredients that contain more fiber and water. Over time, that could be more than enough to literally tip the scales for many obese people. “The difference between losing weight and not losing weight,” says Dr. Robert Kushner, the obesity scientist and clinical director at Northwestern, “is a few hundred calories a day.”
Which raises a question: If McDonald’s is taking these sorts of steps, albeit in a slow and limited way, why isn’t it more loudly saying so to deflect criticism? While the company has heavily plugged the debut of its new egg-white sandwich and chicken wraps, the ads have left out even a mention of health, the reduced calories and fat, and the inclusion of whole grains. McDonald’s has practically kept secret the fact that it has also begun substituting whole-grain flour for some of the less healthy refined flour in its bestselling Egg McMuffin.
“We’re not making any health claims,” says Greg Watson, a senior vice president. “We’re just saying it’s new, it tastes great, come on in and enjoy it. Maybe once the product is well seated with customers, we’ll change that message.” The same reasoning presumably explains why there wasn’t a whiff of cheerleading surrounding the turkey burger brought out earlier this year by Burger King (which is not yet calling the sandwich a permanent addition) or the grilled cod sandwich offered by Carl’s Jr. The industry recognizes what generationsof parents well know: If you want to turn off otherwise eager eaters to a dish, tell them it’s good for them.
Dozens of food-science companies are now trying to make healthy processed food taste just as good as the high-fat, -salt, and -sugar variety. I visited Fona International, a flavor-engineering company outside Chicago, and learned that there is a battery of tricks for fooling and appeasing taste buds, which are prone to notice the lack of fat or sugar, or the presence of any of the various bitter, metallic, or otherwise unpleasant flavors that vegetables, fiber, complex carbs, and fat or sugar substitutes can impart to a food intended to appeal to junk-food eaters. “When you reduce the sugar, fat, and salt in foods, you change the personality of the product,” says Robert Sobel, a chemist who heads up research at the company. “We can restore it.”
I also visited Tic Gums in White Marsh, Maryland, a company that engineers textures into food products. With an arsenal of some 20 different “gums”—edible ingredients found mostly in tree sap, seeds, and other plant matter—Tic’s researchers can make low-fat foods taste creamier, give to sugar-free beverages the same full body that sugared drinks offer, counter chalkiness and gloopiness, and help orchestrate the timing of flavor bursts. Tic served me an under-development version of a low-fat salad dressing that was better than any I’ve ever had.
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