Photo Credit: Grant Cornett for The New York Times
By Yonatan Gordon
This is our first article on eating and nutrition, but seeing the importance of this topic, God willing, we will write more in the future. For an article to amass over 1,300 comments, you know that something’s going on. But when you actually sit down to read it, you begin to realize that 1,300 comments just doesn’t do this topic justice.
The article, “The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food,” based on material from the book “Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us” is an important read for anyone interesting in bettering their eating habits. So what can we at Community of Readers add to this discussion?
Elements of Attraction
One of the running themes we try to mention, are the underlying concepts behind attraction. What leads someone to choose one brand, product or service over another? Perhaps, no industry is as choice sensitive as the food industry. One variation in a product (as the article details, from plain Dr. Pepper to a cherry vanilla version), can mean hundreds of possible variations. In total, a 135-page report was generated in an effort to make the “perfect” new Dr. Pepper version.
The problem, and the answer, rests in how you define the “bliss point” of a product. While people find salads average in taste, those that are health conscious consume greens on a daily basis. For them, even the most “blissful” fast food or salty snack is unappealing. Their healthy lifestyle has effectively overridden the efforts of hundreds of chemists and industry professionals seeking to create the “perfect” taste experience.
So is food consumption a matter of taste or perspective? Do people who eat junk food simply not care about eating healthy? On our road to the answer, first let’s bring a short definition for what is called the “bliss point” for food engineering:
“More is not necessarily better. As the sensory intensity (say, of sweetness) increases, consumers first say that they like the product more, but eventually, with a middle level of sweetness, consumers like the product the most (this is their optimum, or ‘bliss,’ point).”
Sense of Eating
In order to cure an addiction, we need to first identify its root cause. Why does the “bliss point” happen in the first place, and how do we train the public to stop once they “pop” open the container?
For our answer, we need to roll back time a few months to the month of Shevat. According to The Book of Formation (the first Kabbalistic text, attributed to Abraham), each month has a specific sense to it; and Shevat is the one related to eating. In order to rectify and retrain our sense of eating then, we need to think about the month of Shevat.
The rectified sense of eating is the special sense of the tzadik, as is said: “The tzadik (righteous) eats to satisfy his soul” (Proverbs 13:25). This verse continues: “but the stomach of the wicked is always lacking.” The soul-oriented tzadik feels “full” and happy with a little; the body-oriented wicked person never feels content.
When translated to our discussion, the implication is a very strong one. Here we are not saying that the eaters are necessarily the “wicked” ones (i.e. those held culpable for their eating decisions). Rather, the food industry leaders, who know full well of the implications of their modifications, are in effect turning the once satisfied souls, into hungry ones. Leading to (God forbid) problems of obesity, and so forth, as the article details.
But this is still not a complete answer. Most people know, at least on some level, that leafy greens are better for you. In a perfect state of mind, even the best marketing and food engineering, still should not cause anyone to pick up that bag, or enter that fast food restaurant. Ideally, everyone should be content with that which is good for them, and distance themselves from that which isn’t.
But a closer reading of our verse from proverbs sheds light on this attraction. “The tzaddik eats to satisfy his soul.” If given the choice, all good people would like to be righteous. The problem then culminates not with the engineers, but with the marketing. We said that the tzaddik feels full and happy with a little. He eats a little tuna and salad and he’s good until the next meal. But what if a marketer came along and tried to sell him on a new brand of tuna that was “tastier” than his present version? It simply wouldn’t interest him. Although he needs to eat to take care of his body, his “taste” is for spiritual things, not tuna.
Eating from the Tree of Life, the tzaddik derives great pleasure (“life” in Torah means “pleasure”) from the Divine sparks of light and life-force present within the food he eats. In his rectified state of consciousness, he is continuously aware that “not on the [physical dimension of] bread alone does man live, but on each utterance of the mouth of God does man live.”
Why is this all about marketing? Because if a product is unhealthy, the marketing of universal concepts serve as the prime motivating factor behind the purchase. But just as “happiness” doesn’t reside within a bottle of Coca-Cola, the concept of “purity” doesn’t belong to Poland Spring.
So instead of focusing on the tzaddik being “happy and satisfied by a little”, marketers concern themselves with the second reading of what makes the eating habits of a tzaddik different. Through their marketing, they are trying to show how their product comes verily from the “Tree of Life.”
This is the experience a tzaddik has when he eats, and once again, who wouldn’t want to see themselves as a tzaddik?
Where the Bliss Point Begins
Now that we know that we can become happy or pure people without Coca-Cola and Poland Spring, how can we eat blissful without junk food?
In addition to a sense, each month also has one of the Jewish tribes related to it. The tribe for the month of Shevat is Asher (אַשֵׁר) meaning “pleasure” and “happiness.” Our father Jacob blessed his son Asher: “From Asher comes delicious [lit. fat] bread, and he shall provide the delicacies of the king” (Genesis 49:20). From this it is evident that Asher represents the sense of taste and eating. The special tree which Asher personifies is the olive tree, which gives the goodly oil with which Asher’s portion in the land of Israel was blessed.
The idea behind eating blissful foods then, is that like the blessings given to Asher, by eating this food an abundance of blessings with descend upon this person. This explains why an initial, overwhelming sensation quickly leads the taster to get bored of, and reject the food. Like the overflowing jugs in the story of Elisha and the widow, blessings are meant to be continuously flowing. This is the inner reason why the “bliss point” is so attractive to the taster. But the marketer also plays their part, saying that the product is “irresistible” and so on.
But while the concept the “bliss point” (i.e. ever-flowing, abundant blessings) is an attractive one, the marketing of this concept on unhealthy products simply fosters a continual state of hunger for something that is not healthy. As mentioned above, this approach places the moral obligation on the food manufacture to improve the nutritional aspect of their products, and market in a more responsible fashion.
Excerpted and Freely Adapted from Material on Inner.org.