A few weeks ago, author Michael Moss published an article in the New York Times entitled The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food. It is an exerpt from the book Salt Sugar Fat, How the Food Giants Hooked Us, his newly released bestseller. I have yet to read the book, but if the article is any indication, it is likely to be a real humdinger.
A few weeks ago, author Michael Moss published an article in the New York Times titled "The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food." It is an exerpt from the book "Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us," his newly released bestseller. I have yet to read the book, but if the article is any indication, it is likely to be a real humdinger.
The idea that junk food is addictive is not new. A couple of years ago, I wrote about a study in the Archives of General Psychiatry that demonstrated similarities in patterns of neural activation between people with substance addictions and people who struggle behaviorally with food. In other words, if it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it is very likely a duck.
This isn’t even the first high-profile book-length treatment of the subject. Dr. David Kessler’s 2010 "The End of Overeating" provides an excellent primer on the subject of the interaction between the designer food products that end up on grocery shelves and our rising national rates of obesity and obesity-related illness. This book pointed the finger at the copious amounts of sugar, salt and fat that are routinely added to prepackaged food products in order to increase what is known as “palatability,” which tends to drive increased consumption.
Logically, this makes sense. As humans, we’ve never really lived in such a calorically-dense environment. From a survival standpoint, we’re wired to seek out food — this is one of our obvious basic drives. Throughout human history, and throughout the animal kingdom for that matter, we’ve prized food that delivers a dense calorie load. While reading my eldest son "Little House in the Big Woods," the first in the famed Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder, I recall a scene in which Pa stumbles upon an old tree with a beehive full of honey in it. Every other priority for the day was brushed aside as he hitched the wagon and risked the wrath of a hive of bees to procure the pure, sweet honey. In that same story, Laura describes at length the laborious and meticulous process of harvesting maple syrup from the forest. We’ve been doing this forever: when we get a chance at a big dose of sugar — or fat, or the relatively rare mineral salt — we jump at it.
These days, all we have to do is walk to our kitchen cabinet or to the corner store. We simply aren’t well-prepared for an environment in which we are constantly inundated with food that our ancestors would have had to seriously labor for. When faced with such a food-rich environment, many engage in behavior that may be able to be described with the word addiction.
Of course, calling certain foods “addictive” is provocative and controversial. One of the most arresting revelations in the Times article is that, far from being merely the view of public health experts and consumer advocates, many in the food industry itself view things this way. Back in 1999, this happened at a gathering of high-profile executives in the packaged food industry:
"Mudd [Michael Mudd, then a VP at Kraft] then did the unthinkable. He drew a connection to the last thing in the world the C.E.O.’s wanted linked to their products: cigarettes. First came a quote from a Yale University professor of psychology and public health, Kelly Brownell, who was an especially vocal proponent of the view that the processed-food industry should be seen as a public health menace: 'As a culture, we’ve become upset by the tobacco companies advertising to children, but we sit idly by while the food companies do the very same thing. And we could make a claim that the toll taken on the public health by a poor diet rivals that taken by tobacco.''If anyone in the food industry ever doubted there was a slippery slope out there,' Mudd said, 'I imagine they are beginning to experience a distinct sliding sensation right about now.'
"Mudd then presented the plan he and others had devised to address the obesity problem. Merely getting the executives to acknowledge some culpability was an important first step, he knew, so his plan would start off with a small but crucial move: the industry should use the expertise of scientists — its own and others — to gain a deeper understanding of what was driving Americans to overeat. Once this was achieved, the effort could unfold on several fronts. To be sure, there would be no getting around the role that packaged foods and drinks play in overconsumption. They would have to pull back on their use of salt, sugar and fat, perhaps by imposing industrywide limits. But it wasn’t just a matter of these three ingredients; the schemes they used to advertise and market their products were critical, too. Mudd proposed creating a 'code to guide the nutritional aspects of food marketing, especially to children.'
"'We are saying that the industry should make a sincere effort to be part of the solution,” Mudd concluded. “And that by doing so, we can help to defuse the criticism that’s building against us.'
"Of course, this is not what has happened. Because of the incredible profit margins that are obtained by the highly palatable, highly profitable packaged foods, the leadership throughout the industry quickly scuttled any meaningful reform."
This is all interesting as a bit of sociopolitical history, but what does it have to do with your own health and well-being? If you, like about half of Americans, tend to overconsume to the point of undesirable weight gain, how does this information help? It helps to know what we are up against — a food environment that is scientifically designed to provoke powerful, instinctive responses in the form of hunger and craving.