While doing research for his book, The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite, former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner David Kessler went Dumpster diving.
Wearing gardening gloves and dark clothing, Kessler rifled through the trash bins at some of the nation's most popular restaurants to find out exactly what they were serving. He wanted an explanation for his own weakness for junk food and why his weight swung up and down over and over again with diets following periods of excess.
"I wanted to know what was in the food we were eating, especially in restaurants," Kessler tells Michele Norris.
He says restaurant food is rich in calories and is loaded with fat, sugar and salt.
Kessler says the ingredients by themselves may not be harmful, but when combined with other ingredients and marketing campaigns, they stimulate millions of Americans.
"I give you a package of sugar and I say, 'Go have a good time.' You're going to look at me and say, 'What are you talking about?' Now to that sugar I add fat, I add texture ... I add color, I add temperature, I add the emotional gloss of advertising.
"I put it on every corner and I tell you, 'You can do it with your friends.' So what's happening for millions of Americans ... they get bombarded with foods. Their brains get activated. No one's explained to them that they are constantly being stimulated."
Kessler says it is possible to create virtually anything with chemicals. In his book, he writes that a piece of meat can be made to taste like it has been seared, braised, roasted or grilled. And, he tells Norris, much of our food today — because it's so highly processed — is enormously palatable.
"Pick an appetizer. What's in Buffalo wings? You start with the fatty part of the chicken. Many times it's fried in the manufacturing plant first. It's fried again in the restaurant. That red sauce? Sugar and fat. That creamy sauce? Fat and salt.
"So what are we eating? Fat on fat on fat on sugar on fat and salt."
Kessler says that food is excessively activating the brains of millions of Americans to get them to come back to eat more. Still, he says, that doesn't mean people bear no responsibility for their actions.
"Once you understand you are being stimulated, then you can begin to fight back to prevent being manipulated," he says.