“Food pleasure appears to involve both the opioid and cannabinoids reward circuitry that interact in complex ways.” [Source]
It’s no secret that the standard American diet is having a terrible effect on human health. What’s is a secret, though, is how the food industry uses science and psychology to create processed food products that are devoid of nutrition, full of chemical additives and colorings, and incredibly addictive.
In fact, the science of how food companies get customers physically, mentally and emotionally hooked on their products reads like a good conspiracy theory. Major food manufacturers know good and well that repeat customers can be made by tricking the mind and body and overriding our natural tendency to seek out healthy, satisfying foods.
“The public and the food companies have known for decades now — or at the very least since this meeting — that sugary, salty, fatty foods are not good for us in the quantities that we consume them. So why are the diabetes and obesity and hypertension numbers still spiraling out of control? It’s not just a matter of poor willpower on the part of the consumer and a give-the-people-what-they-want attitude on the part of the food manufacturers. What I found, over four years of research and reporting, was a conscious effort — taking place in labs and marketing meetings and grocery-store aisles — to get people hooked on foods that are convenient and inexpensive. ” ~Michael Moss
The story revolves physiology, psychology and neuroscience, and three key ingredients: salt, sugar and fat. And at the core of addictive food science is our understanding of physiology and neurochemical responses to foods. Scientists have been able to boil this down to a simple equation: The Food Pleasure Equation.
“The Food Pleasure Equation postulates that the brain has the ability to quantify the pleasure contained in an eating experience as performed by certain dopamine neurons in the brain and the sensing of calories by the gut. When you have a food choice, the brain actually calculates how much pleasure will be generated during the eating and digestion of a particular food. The goal of the brain, gut, and fat cell is to maximize the pleasure extracted from the environment, both in food sensation and macronutrient content. If a food is lowered in calories for health reasons, the gut has the ability to sense this, and the food will become less palatable over time.” [Source]
The work of the food scientist is to figure out how to override this function and trick the brain and body into believing that high calorie, nutrient-poor foods will offer a reward in the form of nutrition and satisfaction. To do this, they look primarily at a short list of key factors.
In a recent article about food cravings and how to beat them, James Clear, author of Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones, elaborates on the six key dynamics involved in tricking you into becoming hooked on junk foods.
Dynamic contrast. Dynamic contrast refers to a combination of different sensations in the same food. In the words of Witherly, foods with dynamic contrast have “an edible shell that goes crunch followed by something soft or creamy and full of taste-active compounds. This rule applies to a variety of our favorite food structures — the caramelized top of a creme brulee, a slice of pizza, or an Oreo cookie — the brain finds crunching through something like this very novel and thrilling.”
Salivary response. Salivation is part of the experience of eating food and the more that a food causes you to salivate, the more it will swim throughout your mouth and cover your taste buds. For example, emulsified foods like butter, chocolate, salad dressing, ice cream, and mayonnaise promote a salivary response that helps to lather your taste buds with goodness. This is one reason why many people enjoy foods that have sauces or glazes on them. The result is that foods that promote salivation do a happy little tap dance on your brain and taste better than ones that don’t.
Rapid food meltdown and vanishing caloric density. Foods that rapidly vanish or “melt in your mouth” signal to your brain that you’re not eating as much as you actually are. In other words, these foods literally tell your brain that you’re not full, even though you’re eating a lot of calories.
The result: you tend to overeat.
Sensory specific response. Your brain likes variety. When it comes to food, if you experience the same taste over and over again, then you start to get less pleasure from it. In other words, the sensitivity of that specific sensor will decrease over time. This can happen in just minutes.
Junk foods, however, are designed to avoid this sensory specific response. They provide enough taste to be interesting (your brain doesn’t get tired of eating them), but it’s not so stimulating that your sensory response is dulled. This is why you can swallow an entire bag of potato chips and still be ready to eat another. To your brain, the crunch and sensation of eating Doritos is novel and interesting every time.
Calorie density. Junk foods are designed to convince your brain that it is getting nutrition, but to not fill you up. Receptors in your mouth and stomach tell your brain about the mixture of proteins, fats, carbohydrates in a particular food, and how filling that food is for your body. Junk food provides just enough calories that your brain says, “Yes, this will give you some energy” but not so many calories that you think “That’s enough, I’m full.” The result is that you crave the food to begin with, but it takes quite some time to feel full from it.
Memories of past eating experiences. This is where the psychobiology of junk food really works against you. When you eat something tasty (say, a bag of potato chips), your brain registers that feeling. The next time you see that food, smell that food, or even read about that food, your brain starts to trigger the memories and responses that came when you ate it. These memories can actually cause physical responses like salivation and create the “mouth-watering” craving that you get when thinking about your favorite foods. [Source]
Scientists have outsmarted your taste buds and your body’s natural ability to identify the right foods to eat. Knowing this allows you to beat them at this game. Your health depends on it.
Read more articles by Alex Pietrowski.
About the Author
Alex Pietrowski is an artist and writer concerned with preserving good health and the basic freedom to enjoy a healthy lifestyle. He is a staff writer for WakingTimes.com. Alex is an avid student of Yoga and life.
This article (How Scientists Engineer Foods to Make Them Addictive) originally created and published by Waking Times and is published here under a Creative Commons license with attribution to Alex Pietrowski and WakingTimes.com.