For decades the tobacco industry lied to us about the threat posed to our health from cigarettes which, in the 1990s prompted the attorneys general of 46 states to file Medicaid lawsuits in an effort to recover their tobacco-related health care costs. The tobacco companies finally settled their suits in 1998 with “The Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement.” They were on the hook to pay hundreds of billions of dollars to states for the damage done to our collective health. [Vermont has received $689 million through the settlement from 1998 through 2020.]

The settlement’s legal thread was that the companies were producing a product that was lethal and that it was addictive, which, together, made for a public health disaster for which the tobacco companies were responsible.

The question currently being tossed around is whether the companies that produce highly processed food will be the next tobacco industry. The issue is making its way into the public conversation as we recover from a year in the pandemic-induced shutdown; a year in which the reported weight gain is in the 20 pound to 25 pound range.

The academic experts recognize part of the issue is being quarantined to one’s home, which means less walking, less exercise and being more sedentary. But a bigger part of the problem is being near the refrigerator and what we choose to eat. Hint: It’s not the celery, or the kale, or the chicken breasts.

It’s our relationship with highly processed foods.

But the story is not our inability to say no, the story is how the game has been rigged against us. The story is about how food companies have figured out how to make foods more addictive than tobacco. You can’t say no to the potato chips, or the ice cream because the brain’s reward center is in overdrive when prompted.

In a fascinating book, “Hooked” by Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Michael Moss, he shows how food companies have actually engineered food to “hijack the reward circuitry in our brains.” Mr. Moss finds the companies followed the same patterns of the tobacco companies by shuttering research on issues that could raise questions about their products’ addictive qualities. They’ve been proactive in pushing laws that would limit any liability. Perhaps most cynical of all is watching these same companies buy other companies focused on losing weight. Unliver, for example, the owner of Ben & Jerry’s, bought SlimFast in 2000 and sold it in 2014.] They have you both ways; they profit by adding weight and they profit by trying to help you get rid of what they gave you.]

The crucial part of the book is the examination of what’s called the brain’s reward circuitry. The faster the brain’s reaction to the stimulus, the greater the impact. Mr. Moss, citing the research, shows that it takes 10 seconds for the brain to respond to the smoke from a cigarette. For sugar, it’s about a half a second, or 20 times faster than smoke from a cigarette. The author says there is nothing faster in arousing the brain than the “bliss point” in processed food, that magic combination of sugar, fat and salt.

And we wonder why we can’t eat just one potato chip. Or, personal weakness confessed, ginger cookies. The soft ones.

What the food “engineers” have figured out is which food triggers the “on” switch that offers the reward and, at the same time, inhibits the “off” switch which feeds the addiction.

So?

Well, when we talk about the cost of health care it’s important to recognize that 86 cents out of every dollar spent goes to treating chronic disease, a large part of which is obesity related. Think heart disease, diabetes, stroke, cancer, etc. Nationwide roughly 75 percent of the population is overweight or obese. It’s also becoming a problem at younger ages. RiseVermont conducted two separate studies of students in the first, third and fifth grades in Franklin and Grand Isle counties. The first survey was done in 2016 and the second in 2018. The second survey confirmed the first: of those 2,000 students measured, 41 percent were overweight or obese.

That’s a radical increase over the span of a generation or two. And it comes with a big price in the loss of life, function and sense of health. The Center of Disease Control says we lose over 76,000 Americans each year to obesity, which is double the number we lose to car accidents. But that doesn’t count the almost two million Americans lost to heart disease, cancer and chronic lower respiratory disease, all of which obesity can be a major contributor. Obesity is also tied to depression.

It’s estimated that we spent $190 billion on obesity in 2005, and with the increase in obesity rates, the amount will increase considerably.

What becomes apparent in Mr. Moss’s book is that the food companies are fully aware of what they are doing. They understand the addictiveness but their response is that people don’t have to buy their products. It’s their choice.

Is it?

Sound familiar?

by Emerson Lynn

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