Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Are Food Companies Purposely Making Food More Addictive?

It seems that lately, there is a lot of buzz about how fat, salt, and sugar are addictive substances and accusations that the food industry purposely manipulates our food with these substances so that they "make ya crave it fortnightly".  [Name that movie!] 

Just some thoughts on that. I worked for one of the biggest food companies in the US for several years, mostly in nutrition but also in product development.  

At that company, there was no secret cocktail of fat, salt, and sugar that we would whip out to make food addictive.  There was no one in upper management calling down to R&D saying, "Add the addiction trifecta asap!"  Food scientists aren't milling around thinking, "Now how can I get just a little more salt in here without the public knowing?"

And if it is true at other companies, how could all these people keep that kind of a secret?  There are tens of thousands of food scientists working in the industry...somebody would leak something like this if it were true.  These folks don't make a lot of wouldn't be very hard to pay them off to get such information.  

But I bet if you ask a food scientist if they are purposely impregnating food with an "addiction trifecta", they would tell you this:  the goal of product development at a processed food company is to make a food that people will like so much, they buy it again...and depending on the food itself, using fat, salt, or sugar is appropriate to make that food taste good (plus these ingredients are cheap and most Americans want cheap food...more on that another time).  So really, the best way to stop the food industry from selling foods with these ingredients is to stop buying them.     

Now what if people can't stop buying them because they are addictive?  That's a loaded question with so many ramifications.  Using my best Dr. Dork scientific skills, I have to conclude that the evidence in humans is weak right now.  Seems like there may be something there in rats, for whatever that is worth.  But there are not enough studies in humans to really conclude that fat, salt, and sugar are truly addictive substances.  Sure, there are several very serious conditions where people have unhealthy relationships with food...but are they "addictions"?  And if scientists do eventually prove that fat, salt, and sugar are addictive substances, then what?  Will chocolate chip cookies be outlawed?  Will you have to buy salt like you buy Sudafed and sign that weird book?  Will fast food companies see the light and start selling grass-fed beef burgers on stone-ground, whole wheat bread?  Will people shell out $9 for that kind of lunch?   

If you want to read more about this stuff, check out David Kessler's book.  It's certainly a provocative read!  

And not that you asked, but one of my favorite movie lines of all time:  "that boy's head is like Sputnik; spherical but quite pointy at parts!"



  1. Isn't the food addiction argument that the food ITSELF is not addictive, but the combinations stimulate endorphins and produce a chemical high similar to drug addiction? I remember reading something about how food companies (like, for example, Doritos) have formulas that hyper-stimulate taste buds in the perfect storm of flavor, encouraging the eater to crave that taste again. It's not an immediate chemical addiction, but theoretically the combination of taste bud stimulation and endorphin high leads to addiction.

  2. Thanks so much for your comment! And yes, you are correct that the argument is that a combination of ingredients (salt, sugar, and fat) can affect brain chemicals (endorphins, but also dopamine) in a way that leaves us craving for more when taken away. Snacks like Doritos are often the ones under the microscope because they have all three ingredients in them. Baked goods (the real sugary kind) and chocolate are also thrown out there as being "addictive".

    Ironically, there is a press release today from PepsiCo that they are forming a Global Nutrition Group to address such issues. Salt is specifically mentioned. Here is the link:

    Thanks again for the comment!

  3. I read an article that mentioned the combination factor, I think the investigation was looking at ice cream particularly but I imagine it is true for a number of foods. I say imagine because I'm not a Dr Dork but the theory has had some practical application in my diet :). There's also the theory that some people are more prone to addiction of any sort... they substitute soda for cigarettes, ice cream for crack (J/K!) I don't think it's impossible for corporations to keep such things (as trying to make certain foods addictive) quiet or secret. Haven't seen the Coca-Cola recipe or the Colonel's secret spice blend on the internet.......?

  4. I would be happy, if there were at-a-quick-glance codes on food packages, such as a red tag for breakfast cereals that contain over 20 % sugar of the gross weight. And a yellow one for those with over 10 % sugar, and most importantly: a green one for those that contain no more than 5 %. And similar for saturated fats, total fats, and salt. It would save us a lot of time in the store.

    You asked what people would be willing to pay for healthy food. I just shelled out € 8,90 (incl. VAT) for a sushi buffet lunch, and will do it again. Only not every day - some days I take leftovers along, from our family dinners that my hubby has made from fresh, unprocessed ingredients.

    We showed "Supersize Me" to our kids as soon as they were old enough to understand it. After seeing that they do not want to go to McDonald's at all.

    We read the labels on every new product we become interested in. We e.g. only buy bread with more fiber than 6 % of the gross weight, or less sugar than 4 %. We have explained to our kids that breakfast cereals are supposed to be food, not candy, and they accept that.

    But it is sometimes exhausting and depressing to have to relate to the grocery store as if it was a minefield - to have to be super-vigilant all the time, lest they manage to slip you something that you really did not want to buy.

    Compulsory, clear, "glanceable" labeling in combination with large enough text on ingredients lists would be very welcome indeed.

  5. Thanks for your comment Ronja! I could not agree more! In the US, they are evaluating a system like the one you describe. Historically, food companies could label the positive attributes of their food product on the front package. So things like "High in fiber" or "Fat-free" or "Good source of protein" can be splashed on the box. But now the FDA is evaluating whether it's better to list out the it could say "Fat-free" but would also have to say "Exceeds recommendations for sugar intake" or "Contains artificial flavors and colors". That way consumers are getting all of the information at the same time.

    For folks like you and me, it would certainly make our lives easier!

    Thanks again for stopping by my blog!

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  7. Do we really need a study? Its common sense everyone knows salt sugar fat and caffeine is addictive. My concern is that it’s hard to stop eating these foods and drinks. If the tobacco companies can be sued for their products the food companies should be as well. When your willing to endanger the public for profit there is a problem. Not to mention the huge cost of health insurance this has contributed to.