The Science Behind Your (Likely) Addiction to Junk Food

A recent article in the New York Times dove into the issue of the addictiveness of junk food. While most consumers understand that consuming too much processed food is inherently unhealthy, what is less understood is how such foods are purposely engineered to be addictive. The Times article, adapted from the book ­Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, goes into detail about how scientists and marketers in the employ of such food giants as Frito-Lay, Coke and Kraft have manipulated the American consumer into buying more and more processed food by adjusting both the recipes and the messaging around the foods found on the shelves.

Considering the increasing prevalence and cost of obesity-related illness in this country, revealing this manipulation of the food system and determining methods to combat the sway held by food companies should be a top priority.

There is hard science behind food addiction. As outlined by the Times piece, food scientists search for what is called the "Bliss Point," that balance of ingredients, packaging, and experience that make certain products all but irresistible. By manipulating the ratio of salt, fat and sugar in a product, as well as fiddling with product presentation and "mouth feel," food scientists can fool the brain into wanting more even when a sufficient number of calories have been consumed.

A great example given in the Times article centers on Cheetos. The food scientist who was interviewed proclaimed Cheetos "one of the most marvelously constructed foods on the planet, in terms of pure pleasure." He noted that the most powerful addictive attribute of Cheetos is the fact that the snack melts away in the mouth. This melting fools the brain into thinking that no calories have been consumed.  

Other research has shown that the ingredients in junk food, especially vegetable-based oils, act on the brain in similar ways to marijuana, inducing hunger by causing the body to produce substances called endocannabinoids. Simply put, our bodies are biologically wired to seek out high fat, high salt, high sugar foods – so-called hyper-palatable foods – and the corporations that feed us are profiting from those instincts, all the while putting our health at risk. And that risk has been quantified, and the toll taken by overconsumption of processed foods is well documented. Obesity-related illness accounts for roughly $190 billion in additional health care spending in the U.S., with most of these costs being borne by those of lower socio-economic status. Our health care system is becoming over-burdened by those who are addicted to junk. In a way, American taxpayers are footing the bill for corporate manipulation of food.

So, what can be done? Until recently, calls for the industry to reformulate its products to have fewer adverse health effects have largely fallen on deaf ears or been trampled by the profit motive. Companies such as Disney, who recently agreed to stop allowing junk food marketing through their media outlets, have begun to heed the call of public health professionals. Legislative maneuvers to curb larger portion sizes and lower salt content are still in nascent form, although victories have been had. These are but small victories, though, and if the tide of obesity is to be turned, more corporations will have to stop relying on the personal responsibility argument as a defense and address the addictive nature of their offerings.

One suggestion to further goad corporations into acting responsibly is to begin treating junk food like cigarettes and employ some of the same tactics that brought big tobacco under control. Addressing the marketing of processed food to children and improving the quality of school food is another essential step in curbing the obesity epidemic. Children who grow up with healthy eating habits are less likely to grow obese over time. Community based food systems development is another promising avenue for change. Urban agriculture and other forms of small scale food production and distribution have begun to supplement, and in some cases replace, the largely industrial contents of low income food stores with locally grown, affordable, healthy foods.

Corporations have a right to make a profit. What they do not have is the right to make a profit by manipulating the American public with products that increase our health risks. The revelation of the addictive nature of junk food is a necessary step in moving the country toward greater health and corporate responsibility.

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Nate Abrams

I'm a systems guy, which means that I look at almost everything in terms of interconnections, feedback loops, architecture and scale. In other words, I look for the big picture and the deeply buried reasons for why things are the way they are.

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