Saturday, February 23, 2013

Science of Addiction: Junk Food Edition

Everybody knows that we shouldn't eat so much processed junk food, and everybody also knows that's it's sometimes difficult to control your intake of these foods. However, I don't think that many people have thought about what goes on in your brain when you eat many more potato chips than you had planned to eat. In the NYT this week there  is a very interesting piece addressing just these issues and the research that has contributed to our current understanding of why humans love junk food.

For the past 50 years or so, a great deal of research has gone into what it is that humans like to eat and how to market it to them, beginning with military research into which MREs soldiers prefer and continuing to the modern day with research into how many pounds per square inch of pressure it takes to break the ideal potato chip and how to successfully market baby carrots as snack food. Most of this research has been done by large processed food companies with an eye to idealizing the taste of their snack foods so that people will eat more of them. By most accounts, they have been wildly successful - so successful that in the U.S. today one in three adults is obese and the rate of type II diabetes climbs  every year.

One interesting tidbit from the article is that research shows that, although we like strong or unique tasting foods for a short time, we quickly tire of them if we eat the same one over and over again. Over the long term, we will eat more of relatively bland but tasty foods (like white bread and potato chips). This is great news for the makers of salty, fatty, but unremarkable snack foods (I'm looking at you, Cheetos!) that we know so well.

There is a growing awareness that the types of foods, especially processed foods, that people eat contributes to (or detracts from) their health as much, if not more, than the quantity of that food. As I learned from this article, even people involved with marketing processed foods to the public are acknowledging that what we eat is part of the growing health crisis in our country.

Hopefully in the future we can put all of the research behind marketing and idealizing unhealthy food to work helping people to make better choices about what they eat. The more we understand about why people like certain foods, the more we can make healthy foods that people like to eat, or at least stop making and eating addictive foods that ultimately make us sick. The solution to the problem will have to be a combination of information that consumers can use to make better food choices and more responsible food manufacturing and marketing by the handful of companies that control the majority of processed food in America. Understanding what is going wrong now is the first step in the right direction.

(Image: Junk food, grocery store, Houston, TX, USA, a Creative Commons 2.0 licensed image from Cory Doctorow's Photostream via BoingBoing)

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