When is addiction a good idea for an advertising slogan? When it’s shilling potato chips, apparently. In the ’60s, Lay’s potato chips’ ”betcha can’t eat just one″ campaign linked the irresistibility of junk food with the reality of mindless overeating. In the ’90s, Pringles told us that “once you pop, you can’t stop.” Were these promises, or were they threats?
For many of us, they were predictions of a future in which junk food would rule over us all and we would just be its bidding-doing serfs. Here’s an example: According to the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, the “food” that’s our No. 1 source of calories is “grain-based dessert,” which includes the empty calories found in, among other things, cakes, cookies, doughnuts and granola bars. (Also in the top 10: bread, pizza, soda, energy drinks and sports drinks.)
If you’re watching yourself reach for that sleeve of Oreos or that bag of “fun size” treats and feeling more and more out of control, you’re not alone. Research indicates that cravings for ultra-processed snacks like these are unrelated to hunger.
People speak jokingly about being “addicted” to junk food, but that comparison might be more accurate than previously thought. Sugar has been shown to activate our brains in much the same way cocaine does. And a study published last year indicates that people who reduce intake of highly processed foods can experience some of the same physical and psychological symptoms as people who are withdrawing from tobacco or marijuana use, including irritability and headaches.
Yes, we’re often powerless against the delights of impulse buys at the checkout counter, the charms of the office vending machine or the temptations of the birthday party treat table. But we’re all perfectly rational people, right? Why is this happening to us?
Reason 1: You’re a human being
“It’s innate that people like junk food,” said Zata Vickers, a professor in the department of food science and nutrition at the University of Minnesota. [Her favorite junk food: “Before I gave up salty things, Cheetos were my most irresistible.”]
“We’re born with a liking for sweetness and umami, and by about age 6 months, we acquire a liking for salt,” she said. Junk foods have picked up on that manufacturer-original-equipment we’ve been issued and figured out how to give us more and more of exactly the tastes we’re born wanting.
In addition to these innate preferences, Vickers said, humans quickly learn to seek out foods with high caloric density. “We can’t detect vitamins or minerals, but we’re really good at learning to spot density. We figure out pretty quickly that we can eat a salad that’s a mountain of just lettuce, onions and shredded carrots and feel one way, or eat 1/10 the volume of and feel nicely satisfied.”
Reason 2: You have taste buds
In fact, you have as many as 10,000 of them, visible as small bumps on your tongue, the roof of your mouth and throat. Each of these bumps, called papillae, holds up to 700 taste buds, and each one of those has as many as 80 specialized taste-receptor cells. “More DNA is dedicated to flavor-sensing than to any other bodily system, including the brain and eyes,” said Mark Schatzker, author of The Dorito Effect: The Surprising New Truth About Food and Flavor. (His favorite junk food: No surprise, Doritos.)
So here you are, with all this taste-sensing equipment and with a brain that’s designed to encourage you to eat the foods you need to thrive. And while many folks point to individual ingredients as culprits, “Salt, sugar and fat were in easy supply for decades before the obesity crisis, and they didn’t lead to our undoing,” Schatzker said. What hasn’t been around before now, he said, are industrially produced flavorings that send our taste buds into overdrive.
He calls it “flavor dose creep,” and he said it’s exemplified by riot-of-flavor products like Doritos Jacked Ranch Dipped Hot Wings tortilla chips. “It’s a tortilla chip that taste like chicken wings dipped in hot sauce and then dipped in salad dressing,” he explained. “A tortilla chip on its own has salt, fat and carbs. But it’s the flavorings on these Doritos that make you want to keep eating them.”
Armed with a scientific roadmap of the human palate, the mission of food manufacturers has been to load foods up with so much flavor that they leave the realm of “mmm, tastes good” and enter into a zone that former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner David A. Kessler, author of The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite, described as “hyperpalatability.” We love to eat things that taste good. So it stands to reason we’ll really love foods that taste supergoodfingerlickinlicious. And, it turns out we do ― we really, really do.
Reason 3: You are, literally, an “eating machine”
Your ancestors probably had lost at least a few of their teeth by the time they reached adulthood, but odds are you’ve got pretty close to the full set of 32 flossed, brushed and gleaming choppers. Not only are you probably more efficient at eating than they were, but food manufacturers are smoothing the way down your gullet with foods that have what’s called “vanishing caloric density.”
The Platonic ideals of this concept are humble, orange-dusted Cheetos, described by their manufacturer as cheese-flavored puffed cornmeal snacks but known to many people as “Satan’s doodles.” In Michael Moss’ Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, food scientist Steven Witherly described how easy it is to binge on the cheesy-salty puffs: “If something melts down quickly, your brain thinks that there’s no calories in it … you can just keep eating it forever.”
Other examples of this concept abound in foods that are marketed to children. Even a toddler can inhale a squeeze pouch of applesauce in a matter of moments. Or try handing a 5-year-old a and time how quickly it takes to reach the bottom (and ingest 10 grams of sugar in the process). Bottom line: Cavemen had to work to masticate their food. Our super-packaged food has done the hard work for us before we even start.
Reason 4: You have happy childhood memories
Blame your mom and that gorgeous layer cake she baked every year on your birthday. Blame those junior high sleepovers when everyone bonded over pizza. Junk foods tend to be associated with some of the most relaxed and celebratory times of our lives, Vickers said.
“If you go to a birthday party when you’re a child and you have fun, you’ll associate the foods that were served at the party with positive social interactions,” she said. “I swear that a big reason people like pizza is because of its associations with things like Friday nights watching TV with the family or going out for casual meals with friends.
“Think about it. You don’t serve chips at formal, stuffy dinners. You serve them at times and places where people are having fun. When we associate a food with something positive, we’re more likely to want to eat it.” And junk food, it turns out, always seems to turn up when the party is getting started.
Reason 5: You are too busy for this nonsense
Here’s the thing about fresh food: It spoils. Here’s the thing about packaged food: It lasts for a long, long time. How do they do that? One example is Vickers’ explanation of why chip bags are so puffy ― they’re pumped full of nitrogen gas. “The nitrogen keeps the oxygen out, which might otherwise cause the fats on the chips to grow rancid,” she said. (And now you know what all that puffiness is about ― at least as far as those bags are concerned.)
If you take a bowl of potato salad or a fresh veggie platter to a picnic, and you leave it out in the hot sun all day, ick. But bring along a package of Oreo cookies or a bag of chips, and they’ll be fresh as ever when the sun goes down. (Should this worry you? Yes.)
It’s easier to pick up a convenient, always “fresh”(ish) package of junk food instead of a fussy bunch of produce that demands, “Wash me! Dry me! Cook me! Keep me at the perfect temperature!” Even worse, that fresh stuff comes in one size and one variety, and expects you to do all of the work to make it taste the way you want. Doritos, on the other hand, come in 19 delicious flavors, including Dinamita Chile Limon, Blaze & Ultimate Cheddar Collisions and Tapatío. Carrots, however regrettably, do not.
If you find yourself thinking, “Yes, I am too busy to bother with fresh food and all its many needs and lack of industrially produced flavor fun,” you may be putting your finger on the racing pulse of your junk food addiction.
What to do now
Traci Mann is a psychologist and author of Secrets From the Eating Lab: The Science of Weight Loss, the Myth of Willpower, and Why You Should Never Diet Again. (Her go-to junk food? Peeps, but only the chick-shaped ones.)
Her first suggestion is to understand that deprivation doesn’t work. “We’ve done studies where we told people that a certain food was forbidden for them to eat, and it only made them want it more,” she said. “Don’t deny yourself an entire category of food, because it’s been known to backfire.”
Schatzker’s new book, The End of Craving, will be published next year. In the meantime, he had some simple words of advice: Seek out real deliciousness. We’ve become accustomed to thinking of food as the enemy, he says, but in other countries, the food culture is festive and people take joy in eating.
“The two countries with arguably the highest standard of food are Italy and Japan,” he said. “They treasure high-quality ingredients, and they also are among the thinnest people in the world.”
Mann had this mind-blowing advice: “You should be able to have what you like, but try to keep it in a reasonable quantity. Look at what an actual serving size is on a package of junk food. Eat that. Enjoy it. Then stop.”