What do you crave? Chances are, if processed foods have ever been part of your diet, you’re no stranger to craving. What you may not realize, however, is that part of the reason you crave these foods is by a carefully calculated effort by the food industry to manipulate your biochemical, neurological, and emotional centers to crave the foods they sell. That way, they can sell you more. Sneaky, sneaky!
If this story sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the same old sales sneakiness. Only in the past, it was cigarette manufacturers in the hot seat, defending their practice of adding chemicals to their products to make them even more addictive.
Cigarettes, it turned out to almost no one’s surprise, were addictive and toxic. Unfortunately, so many people were hooked on the addictive chemicals that quitting smoking no longer even felt like an option to them, in spite of the terribly negative health consequences of tobacco products.
Smokers at least stood a chance, however. Over the past several years, public policy has made it easier than ever for people to stop smoking. Indoor air quality laws that keep cigarette smoke away from public areas allow non-smokers and former smokers to avoid cigarette smoke. For the former smokers, this is especially helpful because they can avoid the cravings that would pull them back into an unhealthy habit.
Our food supply is a little different, however. Food is all around us. Not only is it part of our culture, but there are complex social and emotional aspects to eating, as well (hence, the billion dollar dieting industry). Because our processed food industry is still allowed to engineer foods full of addictive substances, quitting “cold turkey” seems even more difficult. We need to eat multiple times a day, after all, and our lives are so busy that we also crave convenience. But there’s more to it than that.
If you crave crunchy, salty, smooth or spicy things there can also be different emotional issues at play. I am doing a lecture on getting past roadblocks and the best 7 substitutions for the top 7 highly craved foods at my organic smoothie and juice shop, Glow Bio, 7473 Melrose (cross Gardner) in one week, on March 12, from 8-9 pm. If you are in LA, hope to see you there! Reserve your seat here.
We are all responsible for our own behavior. But unhealthy processed foods, it turns out, may be actually highly addictive!
What’s The Bliss Point Of A Food?
In a brilliant article written for the New York Times, Michael Moss tells of a food industry standard of research that nearly all of the processed food giants use where they engage in complex testing to determine the “bliss point” of a food. While the process of determining the bliss point is incredibly complex and involves testing and analysis of hundreds of aspects of a foods preparation (color, ingredients, flavor, mouth feel, texture, crunchiness, creaminess, sweetness, saltiness, etc.), the definition is fairly simple. The bliss point of any food is the most craveworthy version of that food – the one that invites greater consumption while discouraging the brain from disengaging from the food and shutting off the desire to eat more. Food manufacturers may make hundreds of minute adjustments to their products to bring their foods right into this sweet spot, which is typically a range rather than a single point. Within that range of bliss, the manufacturers can find the most cost effective way to make their foods the most cravable to the largest amount of people.
Emotional and Behavioral Manipulation
Beyond manipulating your taste buds, food manufacturers also spend significant resources searching an emotional connection – whether it is cultural, comfort-related, or solving problems of convenience. When the foods can also meet your emotional needs (by being convenient or reminding you of something grandma used to make) while hitting your bliss point, the stage is set for repeat consumption.
Meanwhile, if food manufacturers can trick you into believing you are attending your health while eating their junk food, then they’ve got a group of consumers who return repeatedly for less than healthy offerings. The Snack Wells line of products is a perfect example of this – low fat snack foods that flew off the shelves in spite of high levels of sugar and artificial ingredients. Products with labels like “whole grain,” “low-fat,” “reduced sodium,” “sugar-free,” and “all-natural” limit your guilt factor, leading you to believe you’re engaging in a behavior that is healthy, even when it isn’t. This allows you to give yourself permission to eat foods that are less than healthy.
Food manufacturers study consumer attitudes about food as well as behaviors. They then set about coming up with ways to overcome our objections to certain foods, regardless of whether the actual quality or healthfulness of a particular food changes. This amounts to little more than emotional and behavioral manipulation with the end result being sales of their products and increased profits for their shareholders.
This emotional and behavioral manipulation begins at an early age, with junk food manufacturers targeting children. Many of their products are in school lunches, as well. That way, by the time the children are adults, eating processed food products seems like a natural way of life. This makes parental involvement in your child’s food choices of even greater importance, given that one in five children in the United States is clinically obese.
Of course, that’s only part of the picture. The other part is that several of the ingredients in manufactured foods are addictive, causing you to crave even more of them.
Some of the worst offenders in making junk food addictive follow.
1. Refined Sugar: The Western palate has adapted to prefer slight sweetness. Because of this, food manufacturers add sugar to many products in order to satisfy this preference. Whether it’s sucrose, fructose, high-fructose corn syrup, or another form of sugar, studies show sugar is an addictive substance. One of the reasons sugar is so addictive is that, when you eat it, it releases opiods and dopamine in the brain that trigger the brain’s reward centers. In fact, animal studies have suggested that sugar may be just as addictive – if not more so – as cocaine.
Eating refined sugar and starches also spike blood glucose levels. As levels drop in the wake of sugar consumption and metabolism, our bodies seek to return to a higher level of blood sugar, increasing cravings for the substance, as well. This combination of craving and addiction makes sugar a particularly dangerous substance in terms of overall health and wellbeing.
2. Salt: Adding salt to foods intensifies their natural flavor, which is why the ingredient is so prevalent in processed food. Add to that the fact the Western palate actually craves a slightly salty flavor, and you wind up with salt in virtually every processed food on the market. A 2011 Duke University study showed that the instinct for salt follows the same nerve pathways in the brain as a number of addictive drugs. This is a biochemical addiction, however, with our flavor preference for salt it also becomes an emotional addiction.
3. Fat: Fat contributes to foods in various ways. It creates flavor, texture, and mouth feel of the foods that Americans prefer. Like sugar and salt, eating dietary fat can also trigger brain chemicals and neural pathways that stimulate the brain in ways similar to drug addiction according to CNN Health.
4. Chemicals: Processed foods contain a dizzying array of chemicals. Such chemicals can be used to simulate flavors, enhance color, change texture, enhance mouth feel, preserve the food, enhance aromas, and serve hundreds of other purposes.
While these chemical additives have been deemed “safe” by the FDA, the truth is little is understood about the effects such a chemical brew has on the human body. The massive amount of chemicals found in the typical Western diet is relatively recent in terms of human evolution – much of it has been around for only about 3 or 4 decades. That’s barely a generation, and not enough time for us to truly understand the long-term effects of so many chemicals, although it appears the results are becoming disturbingly clear. About 1/3 of all adults are clinically obese, as are 20 percent of our children. Eating-related diseases like type 2 diabetes and gout are on the rise. Autoimmune diseases –virtually unheard of 100 years ago – are rampant. Chances are, the chemicals in the foods we eat have as much to do with this as the nutritional bankruptcy of those foods.
How To Curb Cravings
The best way to combat all of this is by drastically changing your diet. For thousands of years, human beings ate what they could gather from the land – plant-based foods that didn’t require processing or cooking. These are the foods our bodies truly crave for good nutrition, and switching to a detoxifying diet of natural, organic plant foods can help you supply your body with the food it needs. Some tips:
Eat an organic, plant-based diet consisting of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and healthy gluten-free grains such as millet, brown rice, and quinoa.
Minimize or eliminate processed foods – those manufactured foods that come in bags, boxes, cans, jars, and bottles.
Avoid the especially addictive and tricky combination of fat, sugar, and salt which hit all of your brain’s pleasure centers, making it difficult to stop eating and triggering cravings for more of the same.