The Clockwork Orange Diet Drug

Nov. 15, 2022
A new treatment makes unhealthy food repulsive to patients; what does that mean for the industry?

Inflation, labor shortages and supply chain problems are bad enough. Now the food industry has to face a new existential threat: A drug that makes food taste as bad in your mouth as it is for your body.

Semaglutide, a drug that boosts insulin, was originally developed to treat diabetes, which is how it’s administered under the trade name Ozempic. Scientists, as they so often do, discovered another use for it: as an appetite suppressant. It’s now being tested for that application, using the trade name Wegovy.

But this stuff is no ordinary suppressant. It actually makes you crave kale instead of cheeseburgers. Smoothies instead of root-beer floats.

That’s not an exaggeration. A dieter who has lost close to 50 pounds using semaglutide told Business Insider that her favorite food from Chick-Fil-A, the 440-calorie grilled chicken sandwich, now repels her; her new favorite is the kale salad, which she describes as “delicious.”

And she’s not the only one. On a subreddit for semaglutide users, one user after another made comments like “I can barely eat hamburgers anymore”; “I can barely type the words rice and spaghetti”; and “chocolate tastes awful now.”

Semaglutide affects appetite by mimicking a hormone released naturally from the intestines. This hormone, called glucagon-like peptide-1, is triggered by food intake and acts on the appetite centers of the brain, suppressing cravings, especially for fat and sugar in many patients.

On the face of it, this would seem to be a miracle drug – a dream come true for those who want to lose weight but are constantly tormented by the thought of delicious high-fat, high-calorie foods. But the experience can be jarring, disconcerting, even frightening. As semaglutide users find their food preferences completely rearranged, some of them become as disoriented as Alex in “A Clockwork Orange” after he has been conditioned to be repulsed by all forms of violence.

One user complained on Reddit that foods she used to love now taste bitter: “I ATE A DONUT AND IT WAS BITTER, AND CHUBBY GIRL OVER HERE NEVER MET A DONUT SHE DIDNT LIKE. I'm in hell. Send soup. Something that isn't bitter. Maybe tomato? scream” Said another: “I’m cooking healthy foods [for my family] but man, cooking it and preparing food makes me dry heave.” Another user said on TikTok, “I miss eating. I miss going out to restaurants. I miss ordering a normal plate of food."

I don’t know if these effects will be enough to keep semaglutide from widespread adoption as a weight-loss drug. I suspect not, in a country where people are so desperate to lose weight that they’re willing to have their stomachs stapled.

Who should be really worried is the food industry. Many food companies make most of their money from unhealthy foods that have been characterized as addictive; literally the only thing that they have going for them is their well-nigh irresistible taste. Take that away, and all you’ve got is a bunch of stuff that makes people fat.

So the food industry had better hope that semaglutide evolves into something like stomach-stapling – an extreme treatment for drastic cases of obesity. If it becomes the norm for weight-loss treatment, yikes. If the industry thought that pivoting from foodservice to retail production during the pandemic was tough, what’s going to happen when it tries to switch from cheeseburgers to kale smoothies?

About the Author

Pan Demetrakakes | Senior Editor

Pan has written about the food and beverage industry for more than 25 years. His areas of coverage have included formulations, processing, packaging, marketing and retailing. Pan worked for Food Processing Magazine for six years in the 1990s, where he was operations editor (his current role), touring dozens of food plants of every description. He has also worked for Packaging and Food & Beverage Packaging magazines, the latter as chief editor, during which he won three ASBPE awards. He is a graduate of Stanford University with a BA in communications.

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