The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food

I believe many of our country’s chronic health problems would simply disappear if greater attention was paid to the root problem — the food you eat.

Americans’ reliance on processed foods is a major factor that drives the rampant disease increases in the US, such as diabetes. According to a new report from the American Diabetes Association, an estimated 22.3 million people were living with type 1 or type 2 diabetes in 2012, up from 17.5 million in 2007.

But why do Americans buy so much processed food and junky snacks? Well, first of all, junk foods are heavily promoted by the US government via agricultural subsidies for crops like corn and soy.

Add to that misleading yet highly effective marketing, and — the focus of this article — the addictive nature of junk food, which is a science in and of itself.

In order to protect your health, I advise spending 90 percent of your food budget on whole foods, and only 10 percent on processed foods. Most Americans currently do the opposite, and this will undoubtedly have an effect on your health, especially in the long term.

The Food Industry’s Role in America’s Health Crisis

In the featured New York Times article, [1] investigative reporter Michael Moss writes about the extraordinary science behind taste and junk food addiction, and how multinational food companies struggle to maintain their “stomach shares” in the face of mounting evidence that their foods are driving the health crisis.

In it, he mentions a 1999 meeting between 11 CEO’s in charge of America’s largest food companies, including Kraft, Nabisco, General Mills, Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola, and Mars. He writes:

“James Behnke, a 55-year-old executive at Pillsbury… was anxious but also hopeful about the plan that he and a few other food-company executives had devised to engage the C.E.O.’s on America’s growing weight problem. ‘We were very concerned, and rightfully so, that obesity was becoming a major issue… [T]here was a lot of pressure on food companies.’

…[Behnke] was engaged in conversation with a group of food-science experts who were painting an increasingly grim picture of the public’s ability to cope with the industry’s formulations — from the body’s fragile controls on overeating to the hidden power of some processed foods to make people feel hungrier still. It was time, he and a handful of others felt, to warn the C.E.O.’s that their companies may have gone too far in creating and marketing products that posed the greatest health concerns.”

The Parallels Between Cigarettes and Junk Food

On that day in 1999, Michael Mudd, vice president of Kraft, did “the unthinkable” during his speech — he drew a connection between processed foods and cigarettes. We no longer condone cigarette ads for teens, having clearly established the health hazards associated with smoking, despite decades-long denials from the industry.

Yet we now blindly accept the same kind of misleading tactics being applied to junk food, even though the health ramifications rival, if not surpass, those of smoking. Mudd presented a plan to address the obesity problem, which would help defuse the criticism building against the food industry.

In my view, the criticism was, and still is, justifiable. As just one example, General Mills created Yoplait that same year (1999), which “transformed traditional unsweetened breakfast yogurt into a veritable dessert,” to use Moss’ own words. In fact, Yoplait yoghurt contained 100 percent more sugar per serving than the company’s Lucky Charms cereal! Yet everyone recognized yoghurt as a wholesome food, and sales of Yoplait soared.

Mudd proposed employing scientists “to gain a deeper understanding of what was driving Americans to overeat.” Once they knew that, products could then be reformulated; salt, sugar and fat use could be reined in, and advertising could be repositioned. The 1999 meeting didn’t go well. It effectively ended when Stephen Sanger, head of General Mills, allegedly stated he would not jeopardize the sanctity of the recipes that had made his products so successful in order to appease the critics.

Fast-forward a decade and we now have novel biotech flavor companies like Senomyx, which specializes in helping companies do what Mudd proposed — finding new flavors to reduce sugar and salt content in processed foods.

These “flavor enhancers” are created using secret, patented processes, and they do not need to be listed on the food label. The lack of labeling requirements is particularly troublesome and will most likely become an issue in the future. As of now, they simply fall under the generic category of artificial and/or natural flavors. What this means is that the product will appear to be much “healthier” than it might otherwise be, were a flavor enhancer not used. The question is, are chemical flavor enhancers safe? Or are food companies simply exchanging one harmful substance for another? That remains to be seen.

The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food

Canadian and American obesity statistics are now neck-to-neck, with about one-quarter to one third of adults in the obese category. A staggering two-thirds of Americans are overweight. This in turn drives skyrocketing diabetes rates. According to the latest report from the American Diabetes Association, an estimated 22.3 million people were living with type 1 or type 2 diabetes in 2012, up from 17.5 million in 2007. Last year 246,000 deaths were attributed to diabetes. The UK also recently released updated statistics, showing a record three million Britons are now diagnosed with diabetes, [2] which equates to 4.6 percent of the British population. Another 850,000 Britons are believed to have undiagnosed Type 2 diabetes.

The total cost of diagnosed diabetes in the US last year was $245 billion, a whopping 41 percent increase from the $174 billion spent in 2007.[3] Obesity also drives rising rates of heart disease, kidney failure, gout, and blindness, just to name a few associated health problems, all of which contribute to soaring health care costs.

So who or what is to blame? As it turns out, poor will power is NOT the heart of the matter.

According to Moss’ four-year long investigation, interviewing more than 300 people in or formerly employed by the processed-food industry, there’s a conscious effort on behalf of food manufacturers to get you hooked on foods that are convenient and inexpensive to make. I recommend reading the featured article in its entirety, as it offers a series of case studies that shed light on the extraordinary science and marketing tactics that make junk food so hard to resist.

Finding Your Bliss Point

Moss’ work also resulted in the book Salt Sugar Fat, in which he dissects the $1 trillion processed food industry. Sugar, salt and fat are the top three substances making processed foods so addictive. In a Time Magazine interview [4] discussing his book, Moss says:

“One of the things that really surprised me was how concerted and targeted the effort is by food companies to hit the magical formulation. Take sugar for example. The optimum amount of sugar in a product became known as the ‘bliss point.’ Food inventors and scientists spend a huge amount of time formulating the perfect amount of sugar that will send us over the moon, and send products flying off the shelves. It is the process they’ve engineered that struck me as really stunning.

When it came to fat, it was the amazing role of what the industry calls the ‘mouth feel.’ That’s the warm, gooey taste of cheese, or the bite into a crisp fried chicken that you get. It rushes right to the same pleasure centers of the brain that sugar does…

When it comes to salt, what was really staggering to me is that the industry itself is totally hooked on salt. It is this miracle ingredient that solves all of their problems. There is the flavor burst to the salt itself, but it also serves as a preservative so foods can stay on the shelves for months. It also masks a lot of the off-notes in flavors that are inherent to processed foods.”

One of the guiding principles for the processed food industry is known as “sensory-specific satiety.” Moss describes this as “the tendency for big, distinct flavors to overwhelm your brain, which responds by depressing your desire to have more.” The greatest successes, whether beverages or foods, owe their “craveability” to complex formulas that pique your taste buds just enough, without overwhelming them, thereby overriding your brain’s inclination to say “enough.”

“Vanishing calorie density” is another term used to describe foods that melt in your mouth, which has the effect of making your brain think it doesn’t contain any calories. End result — you keep eating. Cheetos is one such example. In all, potato chips are among the most addictive junk foods on the market, containing all three bliss-inducing ingredients: sugar (from the potato), salt and fat. One 2011 study cited by Moss determined that the top contributors to Americans weight gain included red meat, processed meats, sugar-sweetened beverages, potatoes, and topping the list: potato chips.

“The coating of salt, the fat content that rewards the brain with instant feelings of pleasure, the sugar that exists not as an additive but in the starch of the potato itself — all of this combines to make it the perfect addictive food,” Moss writes.

Sugar — One of the Most Addictive Substances Known

While food companies abhor the word “addiction” in reference to their products, scientists have discovered that sugar, in particular, is just that. In fact, sugar is more addictive than cocaine. Research [5] published in 2007 showed that 94 percent of rats who were allowed to choose mutually-exclusively between sugar water and cocaine, chose sugar. Even rats who were addicted to cocaine quickly switched their preference to sugar, once it was offered as a choice. The rats were also more willing to work for sugar than for cocaine.

The researchers speculate that the sweet receptors (two protein receptors located on the tongue), which evolved in ancestral times when the diet was very low in sugar, have not adapted to modern times’ high-sugar consumption. Therefore, the abnormally high stimulation of these receptors by sugar-rich diets generates excessive reward signals in your brain, which have the potential to override normal self-control mechanisms, and thus lead to addiction.

Even more interesting, their research found that there’s also a cross-tolerance and a cross-dependence between sugars and addictive drugs. As an example, animals with a long history of sugar consumption actually became tolerant (desensitized) to the analgesic effects of morphine. Today, prescription pain killers have surpassed illegal drugs as the preferred “high,” and pharmaceutical drug overdoses now rank second only to motor vehicle crashes as the leading cause of accidental death in the US. Unfortunately, since it’s all legal, no one is really cracking down on this growing drug problem that is wrecking lives each day. According to Moss:

“[T]he food industry defends itself by saying true narcotic addiction has certain technical thresholds that you just don’t find in food addiction. It’s true, but in some ways getting unhooked on foods is harder than getting unhooked on narcotics, because you can’t go cold turkey. You can’t just stop eating.”

It’s important to realize that added sugar (typically in the form of high fructose corn syrup) is not confined to junky snack foods. For example, most of Prego’s spaghetti sauces have one common feature, and that is sugar — it’s the second largest ingredient, right after tomatoes. A half-cup of Prego Traditional contains the equivalent of more than two teaspoons of sugar.

Two Moms Take on Kraft

In related news, two moms have taken on Kraft. They started an online petition, calling for the food giant to remove two artificial food ingredients, Yellow 5 and Yellow 6, from its Macaroni and Cheese. These artificial dyes have been linked to hyperactivity in children, and are banned for use in the UK. More than 220,000 signatures have been collected so far. Kraft’s response?

“… in the US, we only use colors that are approved and deemed safe for food use by the Food and Drug Administration.”

If you, like so many others, aren’t impressed by this response, feel free to sign the petition, available on

This is a Flash-based video and may not be viewable on mobile devices.

Troubled Meats Get a Makeover

Another food many don’t automatically view as health-harming is processed meats. Moss includes the case story of Bob Drane, vice president of Oscar Meyer, who in 1985 was tasked with figuring out how to contemporize their processed meat offerings. Interviews with harried mothers revealed that the most important issue for them was time, which resulted in the development of a convenient prepackaged lunch containing the company’s pre-sliced bologna and ham, better known as Lunchables. A later line of the lunch trays, called Maxed Out, contained, two-thirds of the maximum recommended sodium allowance for kids, and a staggering 13 teaspoons of sugar.

The Atlantic[6] recently reported that “consuming processed meat went along with other unhealthful lifestyle choices, such as eating few fruits and vegetables, being more likely to smoke and, for men, consuming large quantities of alcohol.”

The new study, which reconfirms results from previous studies, found processed meat consumption was strongly associated with premature death.[7] According to the researchers, reducing daily processed meat consumption to less than 20 grams a day could reduce mortality rates across Europe by three percent annually. This includes bacon, sausage of all kinds, sandwich meats (cold cuts), and any other processed “meat product.”

In 2011, the World Cancer Research Fund came to the sobering conclusion that no one should eat processed meats, ever, due to its cancer-causing potential. Hot dogs, bacon, salami and other processed meats may also increase your risk of diabetes by 50 percent, and lower your lung function and increase your risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). A 2007 analysis by WCRF found that eating just one sausage a day can significantly raise your risk of bowel cancer. Specifically, 1.8 ounces of processed meat daily — about one sausage or three pieces of bacon — raises the likelihood of the cancer by 20 percent. Other studies have also found that processed meats increase your risk of:

What Do Processed Food Company Executives Eat?

Another interesting tidbit offered up by Moss is the eating habits of the food scientists and processed food company executives themselves, whom he met while researching his book. Just like many of our American Presidents, they apparently know more about maintaining their own health than they want you to know about.

Last year, I wrote about political supporters of genetically engineered (GE) foods insisting on all organic fare for themselves and their families while promoting unlabeled GE foods for everyone else. This includes President Obama, who vowed to label GMO’s if elected, but then spent the first four years appointing one Monsanto shill after another into key federal positions that wield near-absolute power over agricultural issues, and never took affirmative action on the labeling issue, even during the height of the California Prop 37 campaign. In the same vein, Moss discovered that many of the food executives and scientists he met avoid their own foods for a variety of health reasons:

“It was everything from a former top scientist at Kraft saying he used to maintain his weight by jogging, and then he blew out his knee and couldn’t exercise, his solution was to avoid sugar and all caloric drinks, including all the Kool-Aid and sugary drinks that Kraft makes,” Moss says.

“It ranged from him to the former top scientist at Frito Lay. I spent days at his house going over documents relating to his efforts at Frito Lay to push the company to cut back on salt. He served me plain, cooked oatmeal and raw asparagus for lunch. We toured his kitchen, and he did not have one single processed food product in his cupboards or refrigerator.

…One reason they don’t eat their own products, is that they know better. They know about the addictive properties of sugar, salt and fat. As insiders, they know too much. I think a lot of them have come to feel badly…”

As Moss says, it’s not that these companies have the demise of your health as a defined business goal. But they do want you to buy their product, and the more the better. Taste is a major, if not overriding factor here, and processed food without generous amounts of sugar, salt and unhealthy fats (like trans fat) would simply be too unpalatable to most. So while some companies, such as Kraft, have tried to alter their formulas to make them “healthier,” the fact remains that processed food is inferior to the real thing no matter how you finagle it. You simply cannot compete with the nutrition found in whole, unprocessed foods.

“Ultimately, they ran into the problem that the whole industry faces, which is the huge pressure from Wall Street and the investment community to increase profits,” Moss says.

How to Eat Real Food on a Budget

This concerted effort by the industry is further enhanced by stimulating your metabolism to burn carbs as its primary fuel. As long as you are in primary carb-burning mode you will strongly crave these types of foods. But once you start decreasing your carbs and protein and replace them with high quality fats, and start to engage in intermittent fasting, your cravings for these junk foods, no matter how cleverly enhanced, will dramatically diminish, if not vanish altogether.

In order to protect your health, I believe you should spend 90 percent of your food budget on whole foods, and only 10 percent on processed foods (unfortunately most Americans currently do the opposite). This requires three strategies, especially if you’re working with a tight budget:

  • Become resourceful: This is an area where your grandmother can be a wealth of information, as how to use up every morsel of food and stretch out a good meal was common knowledge to generations past. What I mean is getting back to the basics of cooking — using the bones from a roast chicken to make stock for a pot of soup, extending a Sunday roast to use for weekday dinners, learning how to make hearty stews from inexpensive cuts of meat, using up leftovers and so on.
  • Plan your meals: This is essential, as you will need to be prepared for mealtimes in advance to be successful for if you fail to plan, by default you are planning to fail. Ideally this will involve scouting out your local farmer’s markets for in-season produce that is priced to sell, and planning your meals accordingly, but you can also use this same premise with supermarket sales. You can generally plan a week of meals at a time, make sure you have all ingredients necessary on hand, and then do any prep work you can ahead of time so that dinner is easy to prepare if you’re short on time in the evenings.
  • Avoid food waste: According to a study published in the journal PloS One, [8] Americans waste an estimated 1,400 calories of food per person, each and every day. The two steps above will help you to mitigate food waste in your home, You may also have seen my article from earlier this year titled 14 Ways to Save Money on Groceries. Among those tips are suggestions for keeping your groceries fresher, longer, and I suggest reviewing those tips now.

When choosing real foods to feed your family, remember that some of the healthiest foods are incredibly affordable, even under $1 a serving, such as:

  • Raw organic milk
  • Raw nuts and seeds
  • Two cage-free organic eggs
  • Avocado, berries and broccoli
  • Fermented foods you make at home

Sources and References

.[1] New York Times February 20, 2013 . [2] Huffington Post March 3, 2013.[3] CNN Health March 6, 2013 . [4] Time magazine March 1, 2013 .[5] See ref 2 .[6] The Atlantic March 7, 2013 .[7] BMC Medicine 2013 .[8] PLoS ONE 4(11)

This article was first published in Dr. Mercola’s website.