Food companies purposely make their products addictive — and it’s making us sick

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Can’t stop eating that bag of chips until you’ve licked the salt in the corners of the empty packet off your fingers? You are not alone. And it’s not entirely your fault that the last handful of chips wasn’t, in fact, the last for that snacking session. Many common snack foods are cleverly designed to keep us addicted and almost constantly wanting more of whatever falsely satisfying food is in front of us.

Humans have an inherited preference for energy-dense foods like fats and sugars, and so natural selection has predisposed us to foods high in sugar and fat, explains Jennifer Kaplan, who taught the course, Introduction to Food Systems, at the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena, California. Food scientists know this and create ingredients that are much higher in fat and sugar than they naturally are. The most common such sugar is high fructose corn syrup and is therefore inherently addictive.

In fact, foods that were previously unsweetened, such as pasta sauce, are now artificially sweetened to keep consumers craving the product, with sugar levels that can rival those found in packaged sweets.

High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is found in everything from ketchup and salad dressings to cereals and baked goods that aren’t necessarily perceived as sweet, and sometimes even in healthier alternatives like light beer. In 2019, Anheuser-Busch, the St. Louis-based brewer of Bud Light. The ad, which tried to promote Bud Light as the most desirable light beer because of its lack of corn syrup (compared to its competitors), particularly upset Midwestern corn farmers, who are subsidized by the government of the US to basically continue to pump our processed. foods with corn products.

These multi-billion dollar government programs, however, do not reach small farmers. The largest 10 percent of farms receive nearly 80 percent of the subsidies, mostly for commodity crops like corn and soybeans, with entities downstream or upstream of actual farmers earning most of the profits, according to a 2023 opinion poll in Kansas City Star.

High fructose corn syrup and salts as addictive as drugs

So what’s so bad about HFCS, the ubiquitous ingredient so essential to the inner aisles of the American supermarket? One tablespoon of the super sweet stuff contains approximately 53 calories, 14.4 grams of carbohydrates and 5 grams of sugar, while a whole ear of corn has about 123 calories. It is much easier to ingest extra, empty calories when they are processed into a sugary additive that enhances the taste of processed foods.

Lower-income households consume higher levels of ultra-processed food, as it has a longer shelf life, is more accessible, and is heavily marketed. This causes these families to have more health problems such as obesity and cardiometabolic diseases.

As an ingredient, HFCS was shown in a 2013 study to be just as addictive as drugs like cocaine or heroin, with the salt proven to have similar addictive qualities similar to opioids. Australian neuroscientist Craig Smith has studied the effect of salt cravings in people for years, concluding that eating excessive amounts of sodium makes people crave more salt, in his 2016 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study suggests that drugs that block opioids can curb our salt cravings.

These findings pave the way for us to study this salt-seeking circuit in humans using magnetic resonance imaging and other techniques, to then develop targeted drugs to curb salt cravings and promote healthier dietary choices. , Smith said, according to a November 2016 article in the. Cosmos magazine. If processed food manufacturers are slow to respond to the need to reduce the salt in their products, this could be another way to reduce deaths related to high salt intake.

Even if a particular food is not overly salty, it can sneak into packaged food more than expected. In most cases, salt is used as a preservative to give food an extended shelf life and keep food safe, explains Nia Rennix, a clinical nutritionist specializing in weight loss and blood sugar regulation. Salt can also be used to enhance the color of food (such as making bread crusts a more attractive golden brown), as well as a flavor enhancer in foods you might not associate with salt, such as ketchup or bread.

You may not be enjoying the salt on your pretzels or the packaged condiments of your center, but salt as an ingredient is keeping you hooked. Salt is extremely addictive, just like sugar. The more salt you consume, the more you want it, and manufacturers understand that, says Rennix. They keep adding salt to food because they want you to keep buying [their products]. It doesn’t matter if the salt is white, pink, sea salt or crystallized, they all have the same effect on one’s body. The packaging may make you think some salts are healthier, but really, they’re all just as bad in excess.

The adverse health effects of too much salt and sugar in our foods

Beyond overeating in general, eating too much salt has been shown to have negative effects on human health. Eating too much salt is not good for your health because the excess water you retain increases your blood pressure. The more salt you eat, the higher your blood pressure, explains Rennix. All of this can put a strain on your heart, kidneys, brain and arteries, which can lead to a stroke, heart attack or kidney disease.

And yet, Americans remain casually addicted to the looming public health crises of obesity and related diseases. Based on data from 2017 to March 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated that nearly 42 percent of American adults are obese, a condition closely related to heart disease, stroke, diabetes type 2, certain types of cancer and premature. death. Even armed with this knowledge, many Americans are regularly tempted by food that is designed to be resisted.

Excess sugar and salt intake is also causing health problems in children, leading to an increased risk of obesity and effects on childhood blood pressure. One in six young people in the US is obese, according to a January 2024 Forbes article, providing data from the National Survey of Children’s Health. In the past three decades, childhood obesity in the US has tripled among teenagers and more than doubled among children, the article adds.

The United States Department of Agriculture in April 2024 decided to regulate school lunches for children and announced rules that will limit added sugars in these meals for the first time between the fall of 2025 and 2027, according to a USA Today article.

Making super-tasty items is just the beginning, explains chef and registered dietitian Jessica Swift, who has an MSc in nutritional science. Pumping sugary food at the sweet tooth is what junk food companies are all about. Having that sugar can release dopamine, the feel-good hormone in the brain, which associates that food with pleasure, making the body crave more.

This good feeling will keep you attached to certain foods, which will bring instant comfort when consumed. The urge to repeat that pleasure is natural, and it can lead to overeating of said food, says Swift.

Self-soothing with food is a common, easy, and often inexpensive tactic for a quick fix, but seeking that comfort can be even less obvious, especially when you’re not necessarily feeling depressed. For example, smelling a dish outside a restaurant or in a supermarket can evoke pleasant memories that awaken cravings.

Absolutely, the smell of a warm apple pie can remind you of grandma’s Sunday dinners. Gingerbread can remind you of vacations with your family. [Scent can play a part in] emotional connection to food, says Swift. Associating food with pleasure keeps people even more addicted to foods designed with excess sugar, salt and fat to keep you wanting more. Sniffing Cinnabon in the mall is a scent that has been proven to entice customers to consume previously unwanted calories and sugars.

Avoiding highly addictive foods

While food addiction is often used in conversation, the Yale Food Addiction Scale was developed as a measure to determine people’s level of addiction to substances. Still, even if not clinically diagnosed, people may have a bad relationship with junk food. So how do we stop it?

Choose moderation for foods you think might be too addictive for you, Swift recommends. Make sure you are eating a balanced diet and drinking plenty of fluids. When shopping for groceries to stock your pantry, read food labels and avoid foods high in sodium and sugar. Don’t keep these foods close at hand, says Swift. Typically, when you have to make an effort to get an item, you are less likely to consume it. At least in this case, laziness can help your health.

Beyond the individual level, the government should implement policies that promote healthy eating habits among people. Americans are getting between 60 percent and 90 percent of their calories from highly processed foods, leading to a health crisis, according to a 2009-2010 study. Agricultural subsidies from the US Farm Bill, which mainly support the production of corn, soybeans, wheat, rice, sorghum, dairy and livestock feed, may play a role in unhealthy food consumption patterns, says a 2020 study published in the journal Nutrients. .

Pourya Valizadeh, a research assistant professor in the department of agricultural economics at Texas A&M University, and Shu Wen Ng, a health economist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, stress the need for the government to move away from promoting these foods. products. In an article published in the April 2024 American Journal of Preventive Medicine, they wrote: Imposing national taxes on unhealthy ultra-processed foods/beverages and providing targeted subsidies for minimally processed foods/beverages may encourage healthier choices healthy nutrition among low-income families.

This article was produced by Earth | Food | Life, project of the Independent Media Institute.

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