Ellen Goodman

Taking On ‘Big Food’

BOSTON — What caught my eye was not just the ashtray sitting forlornly on the yard-sale table. It was the sign that marked it “vintage,” as if we needed to label this relic of midcentury America.

Ashtrays that once graced every airline armrest, coffee table and office have gone the way of spittoons. Today the car’s cigarette lighter is used to juice up the cell phone. Ask any restaurant for the smoking section, and you’ll be shown the doorway.

If I had to pick the year attitudes changed, it would 1994, when seven CEOs of Big Tobacco came before Congress and swore that nicotine wasn’t addictive. A lobby too big to fail and too powerful to oppose began to lose clout. Smokers are no longer seen as sexy and glamorous but as the addicted dupes.

I don’t know that we will ever have such a dramatic moment in the annals of Big Food. But I have begun to wonder whether this is the summer when the (groaning) tables have turned on the obesity industry.

Now that two-thirds of Americans are overweight, the lethal effects of fat are catching up to those of smoke. We regularly hear the cha-ching of obesity costs in the health care debate. And we are beginning to see that Overweight America is not some collective collapse of national willpower, but a business plan.

A measure of the moment is “Food Inc.,” a documentary chronicling the costs to the land, worker and customer of a food industry that’s more grim factory than sylvan farm. A system that makes it cheaper to buy fast food than fresh food.

A more personal measure is David Kessler’s best-seller, “The End of Overeating,” which is both a thinking person’s diet book and an investigation into an industry that wants us to eat more. The former head of the FDA had crusaded against smoking, but found himself helpless before a chocolate-chip cookie. So this yo-yo dieter set out to discover what exactly we’re up against.

Kessler is a scientist, not a conspiracy theorist. But he writes about how the food industry has learned to produce “hyperpalatable combinations of sugar, fat and salt” that not only appeal to us but “have the capacity to rewire our brains, driving us to seek out more and more of those products.”

And if words that Kessler uses like “craveability” and “conditioned hypereating” sound exaggerated, he takes you to an industry meeting where a food scientist on a panel called “Simply Irresistible” offers tips on “spiking” the food to make people keep eating.

We eat more when more is on the plate. We eat more when snacks are ubiquitous, when flavors are layered on and marketed as “eatertainment.” As one food executive admitted to Kessler, “Everything that has made us successful as a company is the problem.”

Sometimes it seems that our consumer society sets up the same conflict again and again. Sophisticated marketing campaigns hard-sell everything from sex and cigarettes to the 1,010-calorie Oreo Chocolate Sundae Shake at Burger King. And we’re told to stay abstinent or tobacco-free or skinny by resisting them. We are even promised “Guiltless Grill” entrees at Chili’s that can weigh in at almost 750 calories and are only guilt-free when compared to an order of Texas cheese fries that tip the scales at 1,920 calories.

The analogy between Big Tobacco and Big Food is imperfect. You can’t quit eating or wear a food patch. We are also quite torn between “size acceptance” — a fight against the fat bias that has even been aimed at the new surgeon general nominee’s waistline — and criticizing fat as a health risk.

But if the campaign against smoking provides a model, it’s in the effort to label restaurant foods and expose the tactics of Big Food. It’s also recasting the folks who bring us bigger food, drinks and snacks as obesity dealers. As Kessler writes, “The greatest power rests in our ability to change the definition of reasonable behavior. That’s what happened with tobacco — the attitudes that created the social acceptability of smoking shifted.” Are we the addicted dupes of the Frappuccino?

The honchos at McDonald’s may never confess how the Big Mac made us bigger, and the food scientists at Frito-Lay may not explain why we “can’t eat just one” potato chip. But maybe this will be the year when an entree of chicken quesadillas with bacon, mixed cheese, ranch dressing and sour cream — 1,750 calories — begins to look just a little bit more like an ashtray.