Your Love of Junk Food: A Chemically Engineered Addiction

Category_Food/Recipes Category_Women's Health comfort food fast food food addiction highly-processed food junk food MSG packaged food

Do you crave junk food?Do you live in a cycle of guilt-shame-and-starting-over when it comes to food? Do you eat healthful foods for a time, then binge on junk food (highly-processed packaged or fast food), return to eating right again, and then repeat the process? Or perhaps you diet (by restricting your caloric intake and/or cutting out certain foods), end up feeling stressed and deprived, binge on junk food (as a sort of “reward”),1 feel guilty afterward, and repeat the cycle? If so, you are among millions of Americans who are dealing with this issue.

The Changing Landscape of Food Establishments and Food

Do you ever look at “old” pictures of yourself, family members and friends from the 50s, 60s, 70s (or before) and think, “Gosh, everyone (of every age) was so much thinner back then!” What was different back then? For one thing, the number of fast food restaurants was minuscule in those decades compared to today's vast array of fast food restaurants on every corner, strip mall, high-rise, and nook and cranny.2 Fast food is, after all, fast, convenient, and requires zero thought, planning or preparation. You think, “Well, I'll just pull into this fast food drive-thru today because I'm in a hurry, but won't do it again,” but then realize you REALLY WANT to do it again...because you seem to be craving something you had there. I remember hearing a TV personality years ago (who subsequently succumbed to colon cancer) saying she was “hooked on” a certain fast food restaurant's greasy fries (which, by the way, contain a whopping 19 ingredients).3

Junk Food Is Everywhere

As we all know, highly-processed (junk food) doesn't only reside at fast-food restaurants. Junk food is extremely prevalent in every super market today – many times, the minute you walk in the door (done by design for the hungry shopper, the impulse shopper, or the shopper without a list to follow), and always conveniently appears again when you're in the checkout line (just in case you need a pick-me-up to get home). A friend of mine has to force herself not to think about or binge on Doritos; she doesn't want to, but occasionally “gives in” even though she knows they are filled with the excitotoxin, Monosodium Glutamate or MSG, (a salt-like additive created in a laboratory in Japan in 1908 that has been linked to everything from headaches and asthma to neurological damage)4,5,6,7 and its companion chemical, Disodium Inosinate (which comes from either “commercially prepared meat (possibly porcine) or fish”) and should be avoided by people who suffer from asthma (which she does) or are prone to gout,8 and Disodium Guanylate, which combine to elicit a “taste explosion” – that strong addictive quality in a Dorito. “The biggest hits – be they Coca-Cola or Doritos – owe their success to complex formulas that pique the taste buds enough to be alluring but don’t have a distinct, overriding single flavor that tells the brain to stop eating.”9 People often tell me that although they know highly processed food (junk food) is bad for them, they “don't feel good unless” they have a certain type of junk food, or a whole box/container of something. They say it helps them to “calm down.” They feel they need to eat it when they're “stressed.” All of the terms: “hooked on”...”don't feel good unless I have it”...”helps me to calm down”...”need it when I'm stressed,”... “I didn't want to, but I gave in,” have something in common with what many people say about smoking, drinking and street drugs: they are terms used by people struggling with addiction.

Highly-Processed / Junk Food Addiction

Highly processed foods are foods that have undergone a considerable change from their natural form,10 and contain chemical additives which enhance taste, and act as preservatives. There is evidence to show that food addiction,11 and therefore binge eating disorders on highly-processed foods (junk food), are becoming more prevalent. But is it really “food” to which people are addicted, OR foods that have actually been chemically engineered into food-like substances?12 But what would someone do to a food (in its purest form) to make it more palatable (pleasant to taste)? Maybe add some salt or sugar? Okay, but what about making the foods hyperpalatable (EXTREMELY pleasant to taste)?13 If something is hyperpalatable, it has been engineered to “go down easily”14 (something that's often said about fast food). Also, if it's hyperpalatable, it just makes sense that people would crave it and thus buy more of it!15

“Many highly processed foods have been altered in a similar manner as addictive drugs.”

Table 1. Similarities Between Hyperpalatable Foods and Addictive Drugs

1. Activate dopamine and opioid neural circuitry 2. Trigger artificially elevated levels of reward 3. Absorbed rapidly into the blood stream 4. Alter neurobiological systems 5. Cause compensatory mechanisms that result in tolerance 6. Combined with additives to enhance rewarding properties 7. Elicit cue-triggered cravings 8. Consumed in spite of negative consequences 9. Consumed in spite of a desire to cut down 10. Impact disadvantaged groups to a disproportionate degree 11. Cause high public health costs 12. Exposure in utero can result in long-term alterations16

The Flavor Industry

Did you know there is actually a multi-billion dollar industry called, “The Flavor Industry?” Have you ever seen the term “proprietary blend?” This term, along with “natural flavoring” or “natural flavors” is considered okay because “The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t require flavor companies to disclose ingredients, as long as all the chemicals are GRAS (Generally Regarded As Safe). Not disclosing ingredients allows the companies to maintain the secrecy of their formulas.”17 Here is a very revealing interview from the CBS investigative news program, 60 Minutes, with food scientists (who work in the “Flavor Industry”) conducted by the late Morley Safer, called, The Flavorists: Tweaking Tastes and Creating Cravings: 18

What You Can Do

Here, award-winning author, Michael Pollan, gives us some very basic, simple rules of thumb to follow:

  • Shop at the fringes (stay on the outer edges of the supermarket)
  • Always read the labels; if you can't pronounce it, don't buy it
  • Plant and tend a garden (if you are able to do so)
  • Buy locally (shop at farmer's markets for fresh food)19

And I will add a few more tips:

  • PLAN. You must plan what you will buy ahead of time, and you must take (make) the time to prepare it. Preparation is definitely the key to successfully removing junk food from your life!
  • Don't go to the supermarket when you're hungry (an old one, but can't be said enough)!
  • Do not allow yourself to get ravenous. Take water and nutritious food with you in the car.
I don't take credit for the following statement, but I often say this to my patients: People don't plan to fail, they fail to plan. Be a planner when it comes to your food and exercise, and you can more readily plan on having a healthier and more active life. The Doctor Emi Team
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3. Katie Little. What are McDonald's fries really made of? Jan. 20, 2015. Consumer News and Business Channel. (CNBC)
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9. Michael Moss. The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food. Feb. 20, 2013. New York Times Magazine. (NYTimes)
10. Veggie Rx, Fresh Approach. What is a processed Food? Fresh Approach was founded in 2008 by the Pacific Coast Farmers’ Market Association. Staff and Board members of PCFMA saw a need to better connect communities to the fresh produce available at farmers’ markets in their neighborhood. (FreshApproach)
11. Pedram P, Wadden D, Amini P, et al. Food Addiction: Its Prevalence and Significant Association with Obesity in the General Population. Published: September 4, 2013 (PLOS)
12. Daniel DeNoon. 7 Rules for Eating - Choose Food Over Food-Like Substances, Food Writer Michael Pollan Tells CDC. March 29, 2009. WebMD Archives (WebMD)
13. Gearhardt AN, Davis C, Kuschner R, Brownell KD. The addiction potential of hyperpalatable foods. Absract. Curr Drug Abuse Rev. 2011 Sep;4(3):140-5. PMID: 21999688 . (PubMed)
14. Catherine Guthrie. Scary Food Science. How advanced food technologies mess with our minds and our metabolisms. Experience L!fe. Oct.2010. (ExperienceLife)
15. Adrian Meule. How prevalent is “food addiction”? Department of Psychology I, University of Würzburg, Würzburg, Germany. Frontiers in Psychiatry. Front. Psychiatry, 03 November 2011 | (FrontiersIn)
16. Gearhardt AN, Davis C, Kuschner R, Brownell KD. The Addiction Potential of Hyperpalatable Foods. PDF. Current Drug Abuse Reviews, 2011, Vol. 4, No. 3, page 141. (UMich)
17. Samia McCully, N.D. The Flavor Industry. Sound Consumer | August 2010. PCC Natural Markets. (PCC)
18. Morely Safer. The Flavorists: Tweaking tastes and creating cravings. CBS News: 60 Minutes. Nov. 2011. Pub. on YouTube Sept. 2012. (YouTube)
19. Alex Cohen. Michael Pollan: If You Can't Say It, Don't Eat It. April 24, 200811:23 AM ET. National Public Radio. (NPR)

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