Salt, Sugar and Fat: Could You Be Addicted?

What's the science behind our addiction to junk food? Could the food industry to blame? Journalist Michael Moss explains!

Salt, Sugar and Fat: Could You Be Addicted?

As a nation, Americans eat more than 33 pounds of cheese per year, which is three times more than Americans did in 1970. We also eat more than 70 pounds of sugar per year and up to six pounds of salt per year. Could our growing addiction to these unhealthy junk foods be causing our growing obesity crisis? And is the food industry to blame?

The majority of this food comes from processed sources – food that is “made in a plant rather than grown on a plant.” In fact, it’s harder to imagine someone binging on a whole bowl of apples or corn than someone gorging on a whole bag of chips or bag of cookies. New York Times investigative reporter Michael Moss suggests the addictive qualities of most junk foods could be boiled down to three additives: salt, sugar and fat.

According to Moss, salt is considered the “magical ingredient” because it provides a cheap burst of flavor. It not only makes sugar taste sweeter, it can even add crunch to crackers and chips. It also aids in prolonging shelf life. However, in excess, it can not only raise your blood pressure and damage your heart, it can also make you look puffy and retain more water weight. To make salt’s taste more powerful, companies use kosher salt instead of regular table salt. Why? Kosher salt is shaped differently and dissolves on your tongue faster and triggers a "flavor burst" all over your mouth.

Our bodies are hard-wired to crave foods with sugar. Food companies know this and take advantage of it, says Moss, by adding as much sugar as possible and using it to pull off a string of manufacturing miracles – from making donuts fry up bigger to giving cereal a toasty-brown look. In fact, there’s a crucial tipping point food companies look for when adding sugar to food, which Moss discovered, called the “bliss point.” This is the precise amount of sugar they will need to add that will send the consumer over moon without going overboard.

Fat is even more powerful than sugar. It comes in many forms and isn’t easily recognized on food labels. It provides twice the energy kick of sugar and gives food the capacity to sit on shelves for days and days. It can also give the food more bulk or texture. According to Moss, the more fat a food company adds to a particular product, the more attractive it was because of its altered “mouthfeel.” This describes the desirable texture of some foods, whether it be the gooey feeling of cheese, the creamy taste of alfredo sauce or the savory crunch of fried chicken.

What’s Going On Upstairs?

Research has shown that various forms of food stimuli (advertisements, smells, photographs of food) trigger the brain the same way that seeing white powder triggers cocaine addicts. Eating foods that are high in fat and sugar has been shown to surge the body’s release of its own opioids, which act like morphine in the body. Additionally, it has been shown that drugs that block the brain's addictive receptors for heroin and morphine also work at blocking a person’s cravings for sweet, high-fat foods.

One research project used a PET brain scan to compare the brain structures of a cocaine addict to that of a food addict. When cocaine addicts observed a video of someone snorting cocaine, their brains surged with dopamine, the brain’s feel-good chemical, in the dorsal striatum. However, when they exposed non-addicts to images of a delicious cheeseburger, they observed the same surges of dopamine in the same parts of the brain.

The King of Addictive Foods: The Potato Chip

Potato chips are the most weight-inducing food on the market, as they contain targeted amounts of salt, sugar and fat to ensure addiction, says Moss.

The factory process makes this food dangerously irresistible. After being cut into thin slices, the potatoes are fried to a crisp in fat, which gives the chip most of its calories. Then, they get covered in salt, which hits the tongue first and provides bursts of extra flavor. Then, the moment you eat them, the simple carbohydrates in the potatoes quickly break down into sugar, bringing you to the "bliss point" that makes the chip the most enjoyable. The sugar then quickly enters your bloodstream – causing your blood sugar to spike faster than it would had you consumed a similar amount of table sugar.

According to Moss, all three of the junk-food-addiction building blocks in the potato chip work together to make you crave more chips and gain more weight.

What Are Food Companies Doing About It?

Instead of acknowledging claims that the food industry is deliberately making junk food more addictive, many food companies instead point fingers at the consumer for lack of self-control, says Moss. However, the larger picture is more complicated that. Many companies are merely trying to keep their brand in the mix in an atmosphere of stiff competition and limited profit margins. However, that’s no excuse for endangering the health of the public by developing new foods and drinks loaded with more sugar, more fat and more salt.

In order to protect yourself, become a food label vigilante. Actively look for foods that are lower in sodium, and have less sugar and lower fat. You can also seek out natural, plant-based snacks and food.

With enough consumer (and possibly government) coaxing, food companies will need to react and produce more of the healthy foods that the public desires.

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