Health

How food is engineered to keep us eating

Ever wondered why bad food is so much more tempting than the healthy stuff? It's engineered that way.

Can’t seem to put down the chip packet or ice cream tub until it’s empty? Spoiler alert: it’s not your fault. Around the world, scientists are busy designing foods that are as addictive as opioids. Sabrina Rogers-Anderson investigates.

By Sabrina Rogers-Anderson

The average Australian family of 4 now spends 61% of its food budget on unhealthy food and drinks, the University of Queensland's School of Public Health has revealed.

While this can be partly attributed to the cost-of-living crisis that’s making fresh, healthy food unattainable to many Australians - especially those living in remote areas - there’s a more nefarious explanation for our nation’s obsession with junk food.

“We live in an environment where we’re constantly surrounded by food triggers and food marketing,” says Professor Katherine Samaras, endocrinologist and clinical scientist at Sydney’s Garvan Institute of Medical Research. “We know from the science that simply seeing a food image triggers hormonal responses that drive us to eat.

“The food industry is very advanced in its scientific knowledge. They know the combination of macronutrients they need to put into foods that will drive people to eat more and more and more. It's food components like sugar, carbs, fat and salt that create hormonal responses that drive us to eat.” Unprocessed foods on the other hand are much healthier and much less likely to tigger the response to overeat.

Is food addiction real?

While experts can’t seem to agree on this contentious question, proponents of the food addiction theory argue that hyperpalatable foods (HPF) - those that are formulated with with at least two ingredients from the salt-sugar-fat-carbs quadfecta - affect the brain in the same way as drugs like cocaine and opioids.

Both HPF and addictive substances activate the same reward centres in the brain and trigger the release of the feel-good chemical dopamine.

People also develop tolerance to them over time, requiring larger amounts to get the same effect, and trying to quit them creates the same hyperactive response in the brain.

Michael Moss, New York Times investigative reporter and author of Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, has been studying the food industry for years and has uncovered some of its darkest secrets. 

“I visited the head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse in Washington, Nora Volkow,” Michael said in an interview. “She’s a scientist who has done work on neurobiology and has studied the effects of narcotics and highly palatable foods on the brain.

“She’s convinced that for some of us, which means many people, the most highly fatty and sugary foods are every bit as addictive as some narcotics, and her advice to them is to stay away entirely.

“You’re not going to be able to stay put eating just a couple of cookies. Moreover, trying to solve the problem for you is going to be harder than drugs because you can’t go cold turkey on food like you can narcotics.”

How hyperpalatable foods are developed

But how do food companies create these ultra-processed, potentially addictive foods?

They engage teams of scientists who harness the power of neuroscience to engineer foods we can’t stop eating.

By studying the responses that are triggered in the brain from the moment a food hits the tongue, they can tweak their formulations until they’re entirely irresistible.

When creating a cracker or a chocolate, they play around with a number of features that boost its palatability - also known as craveability or moreishness.

These include:

  • Vanishing caloric density: When a food like chocolate melts in your mouth quickly, it tricks your brain into thinking you haven’t eaten as many calories as you actually have.

Once food companies have perfected their formulas, the foods they engineer are often unpalatable.

So, they add in “flavour enhancers” - often disguised behind innocuous labels such as “natural flavours” - to make them edible.

Michael Moss was infamously invited into the Kellogg’s research and development department to taste-test their iconic products minus the added salt.

Moss was horrified to discover that their cereals tasted like metal and he couldn’t even bear to swallow their Cheez-Its crackers.

Food marketing makes us even more addicted   

In addition to investing millions into research to make us physically addicted to their foods, the food giants hammer us with constant triggers through their meticulously designed advertising and marketing campaigns. 

From enticing packaging to misleading health claims and slogans like “Betcha can’t eat just one” and “You’ll be back for more”, they make sure their irresistible products are always on our minds.

Breaking free from the food addiction cycle

While this might paint a grim picture of the food that’s on our supermarket shelves, knowledge is power when it comes to the affect ultra-processed foods have on our health.

Research supports following a Mediterranean diet for healthy ageing and sustained energy. You can learn more about how to incorporate these types of foods into your day-to-day here.

By prioritising whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, lean meat and dairy products, you can avoid the trap of hyperpalatable foods. We recommend recommend these Longevity Recipes from Professor Luigi Fontana.

When you do choose packaged foods, read the ingredients list and nutrition information panel carefully. This guide to reading food labels will help you make good food choices and stay healthy for years to come.

The information on this page is general information and should not be used to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease. Do not use the information found on this page as a substitute for professional health care advice. Any information you find on this page or on external sites which are linked to on this page should be verified with your professional healthcare provider.

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