Sometimes what you want to want is the opposite of what you want want.
When I was a teenager I accepted an invitation to visit a friend’s house while the rest of their family was away. Together, we baked a Betty Crocker packet cake, then gorged on it, straight from the oven, drowning the spongy sweetened mass with Sarah Lee Ultrachocolate Ice-cream.
Never before had I experienced the ritual of deliberate overeating. Up until that point in my life my parents regulated what food I bought and how much I could eat. People living in our modern, consumerist society would describe that time in my life as “growing up” and “becoming independent”. Looking back I can now see I was actually becoming isolated and disconnected from socially imposed eating habits.
For most of my life I have been very controlling about my dietary habits. My childhood of suffering with nonstop sinusitis and asthma evaporated when I stopped eating dairy products in my late teens. My digestion improved dramatically when I cut out wheat in my late twenties. The food I ate from then on was cheap and plain. Eating at restaurants was a minefield, so I avoided social occasions most of the time, or sat there awkwardly not eating in the midst of the feast.
Since moving to the farm full time I have had the occasional lapse eating junk food. During these occasions the strategy was to overindulge, to make any negative effects obvious, hoping I would be discouraged from repeating the experiment. In the last year, when I hit a point of feeling burnt out and a little hopeless with the farm project, I allowed myself to sink deeper into that hole. I tried to justify it, rationalising that the entire panoply of wondrous industrial foods could soon vanish from the world, so why not wallow in them for a while?
I’ve since snapped out of that destructive cycle, with my determination restored to achieve what I can on the farm in what is left of my life. But the ingrained habits of the last year are something that will need attention. I don’t believe all that much in will power or effort. The cards are stacked against the individual in the modern world. I grew up being fed addictive stimulants (chocolate/sugar) from early childhood in the context of it being a treat. Teams of advertising psychologists and food scientists toil day and night to harness our deeper impulses, sacrificing our well-being for the sake of their profits. Industrial civilisation has reduced us to isolated individuals, doomed to struggle alone against a world eating system.
Junk food is designed to hit the bliss point of multiple key ingredients, coupled with a wall of manipulated images to appeal to our base psychology. But perhaps the perfection of this trap is its ultimate weakness.
We all know of cases where a person ate a bad prawn, a half-rotten fruit, a rancid nut, and found themselves unable to face eating that ingredient, often for the rest of their lives. Humans are designed to identify food with desirable nutrients (as exploited by the junk food industry), but are also designed to avoid foods that threaten them. For a long time I have asked myself the question- is it possible to train our subconscious food oriented mind for our own purposes, just as skilfully as the junk food industry?
The original conception of the plan went something like this. The processed food industry uses a dazzling array of flavour and aroma chemicals that are very loosely regulated. A million dollar product would combine a range of foul substances, optimised using the same tools of industrial food science and psychology that designed coke and mars bars, to find a recipe which could be applied to any addictive junk food the customer was struggling to stop eating. The concentrations would be such that the immediate experience of eating their favourite “treat” would be mostly unchanged. However once consumed, the abundant taste buds that line the digestive tract would register something wrong with the junk food, not enough to be dangerous or harmful, just enough to produce a feeling of ill-ease that would train the subconscious brain to avoid that food in the future.
If someone else wants to pick up this idea and bring a product to market then they are welcome to it. Anything that gives people a weapon to fight back against processed food would be welcome. I suspect that appreciating the packaging, branding and advertising around the troublesome product during the process of eating the tainted version would be useful in undermining every step in the addiction process. It is worth noting that this wouldn’t be a magic wand, and that tainting the subconscious response to one junk food might just leave the door open to become hooked on a different one (though tainting an unfamiliar junk food type the first time you try it might be more effective than breaking the stronger bonds to an old food).
Humble me, sitting on my farm, wondered if there might be a more home grown approach to take that didn’t involve ordering and blending industrial chemicals. There are plenty of things I grow that have awful flavour profiles. With a little cautious self-experimentation I figured I might be able to find a workable approach. Two possible “natural” ingredients for tainting junk food came to mind.
The first was persimmon. Ripe persimmons are a delight, probably the sweetest thing I grow on the farm (apart from sugarcane juice and honey). Unripe persimmons by contrast are packed with tannins. Eating a fruit that is even slightly unripe causes a horrible, puckering mouth feel that lasts for hours and often puts me off risking another ripe persimmon for weeks. So I picked a basket of unripe persimmons, removed the skin (since it contains a substance that can form solid masses in the stomach called bezoars), then grated the pulp. I bought a tub of Sara-Lee Ultrachocolate Ice-cream, as a homage to where the habit of overeating junk originated.
I started by eating a teaspoon of untainted ice-cream. Then blended an eight of a teaspoon of unripe persimmon pulp and found the mouth pucker was almost imperceptible. I slowly increased the dose, taking five minutes between doses, until I reached a one in four ratio of persimmon pulp to ice-cream. At this point the texture was starting to feel slightly wrong, but I could eat the mixture without any immediate urge to spit it out. I look some time to smell the product and look at the packaging before putting it away.
About half an hour later a distinct warmth emanated from my stomach. I didn’t feel nausea or cramps, just a strange feeling of suspicion toward the ice-cream. It was funny because my conscious mind knew exactly what had happened, yet on a subconscious level all sorts of alarms were flashing. The feeling persisted for the next couple of hours, slowly easing. The next day the feeling of suspicion toward the ice-cream continued but I suffered no apparent after effects. I encouraged myself to have another bowl but couldn’t motivate myself to serve it up. The plan is to repeat the dosing when the urge to eat ice-cream returns. Waiting for the urge to surface naturally, then meeting it with the same suspect product, seems like the best way to retrain that urge. I grated and froze a larger amount of pulp so I can use it through the year.
Another home grown ingredient is Aloe. I am quite fond of bitter vegetables, but the taste of Aloe is profoundly revolting to me. Consuming aloe vera gel has become popular in recent times despite clear evidence of its carcinogenic potential (clearer than for glyphosate for example). To continue the experiment I took a block of my favourite chocolate and painted the back side with aloe gel. I applied as much as I could (1-2 mm deep) and let it dry out in the fridge overnight. When consumed I could detect a mild bitter aftertaste, but unlike the persimmon there was little lingering effect, so I would tentatively call the experiment unsuccessful. My initial impression is that simply ruining the immediate flavour impression of the food in question is ineffective, as your conscious mind can easily reorient itself back toward the untainted version. Unripe persimmon had the effect of causing delayed and prolonged subconscious impressions of being ill at ease, which coupled nicely with a noticeable aftertaste of the junk food without significant notes of the added ingredient.
I repeated the chocolate bar experiment with a layer of grated unripe persimmon on top. The immediate tannic mouthfeel was impossible to ignore (unlike in the ice-cream where it almost vanished). Anticipating the same slow moving feeling of mild nausea, I saved an untainted sample of chocolate to smell and slowly eat as that process unfolded. Nothing much happened in the hours after consumption. I think that the ice-cream experiment was more effective since the product is mostly water. However, the next day I contemplated eating chocolate again and I experienced the same gut reaction of suspicion. Time will tell whether or not I am simply going through a placebo/psychosomatic experience. I can say at least a week after the ice cream experiment the suspicion remains.
An unavoidable caveat here- all self-experimentation carries unknown risks and this article is not advice for you to copy my method. This has never been done before as far as I can tell and could carry unknown risks. How effective this approach ends up being is also a big unknown at this stage, since the potential for placebo effects this early in the process is quite high. I’ll make an effort to report back in down the track (possibly in the comments if not in a separate post).