Coming June 9, 2016, Here & Now listeners and visitors will experience our stories and journalism online in a whole new way.
Why do McDonald’s, Starbucks and other chain restaurants offer huge dollops of whipped cream to consumers at no extra cost, but at more than 100 extra calories?
Why do McDonald’s and Burger King hand out caramel sauce with their sliced apples? The sauce can add up to 70 calories and 9 grams of fat to an otherwise healthy snack.
McDonald’s says they’re phasing out the caramel when they roll out their new healthier Happy Meals. But why did they offer caramel in the first place?
Former F.D.A. commissioner, David Kessler, has been studying this issue for years and wrote about it in his 2009 book, “The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite.”
He told Here & Now’s Robin Young that adding extras like whipped cream or caramel sauce is part of a larger phenomenon.
“The fact is the American diet is the sweetest diet in the world,” Kessler said. “And it is the sweetening of the diet that drives eating.”
Kessler says that sweeteners in food are the main drivers of overeating. And combining sweet with fat, texture, and even temperature makes food even more tempting. It’s a formula that seems to be working.
“Look at what the business plan of the modern, global food company has been,” Kessler said. “It’s been to take sugar, fat and salt, put it on every corner, make it available 24-7, make it socially acceptable to eat any time.”
McDonald’s spokesperson Danya Proud said that McDonald’s recently rebranded its shakes. Instead of the dull, plastic cup, the shakes now come in plastic cups and every one is topped with whipped cream and a cherry. Proud said the sight of the new shake is sending a cue to consumers to buy them. And shake sales are up.
Kessler says our brains get cues to eat not only from an image, but also from a smell or even a place. For example, he gets an urge to go to In-And-Out Burger when he gets on Highway 101 in Northern California. Here & Now host, Robin Young, says she gets a craving for a certain frosted, cream-filled doughnut when she lands back at Logan Airport in Boston.
“We’re living in a food carnival,” Kessler said. “We always used to have sugar desserts, but we were having it at certain times. Today we’re eating desserts all the time. The key is our brains are being activated by those cues that are linked to the actual consumption of that food.”
Rewiring Our Brains
Kesssler says those cues, combined with sweeter food, are rewiring our brains.
“Something activates your brain circuits so you have a cue arousal,” Kessler said. “This increased attention – and then you have the sweetener – and that reinforces the cue that reinforces the learning, it strengthens the neural circuits and you do it again and again.”
Unfortunately for office workers, Kessler said, even well-meaning colleagues can create these tempting cues.
“Little do we realize that in essence, we are creating some hostile act by doing that,” Kessler said. “Because we’re triggering everyone’s brains, but those cues activate the brain’s circuits that stimulate the brain’s wanting.”
Kessler says the combination of a sweeter diet and ubiquitous cues are part of the reason why the United States is the fattest nation on the planet.
His advice: think about what you really want to eat before you enter a restaurant. Then, stick to your guns and don’t go for that extra whipped cream.