This is one in a series of articles. For more on this subject visit The Daily Meal Special Report: Is Our Food Killing Us? Diet, Nutrition, and Health in 21st Century America.
When you can't resist the craving for cookies, soda, a burger, even pizza and pasta, or when the desire to binge eat an entire bag of potato chips is simply too strong to defy, you’re treading in the waters of addiction. Is there a science behind our addiction to fast food?
In fact, there is. The reason we can't say no to foods like these isn't because they have a more flavor than a plate of steamed vegetables; it’s because much of what is churned out by the processed food industry involves a powerhouse combination of chemically altered salts, fats, and sugars designed to keep us coming back for more.
Salt, fat, and sugar feature in our daily diets in various forms, from table salt to sugar packets to everything from cooking oil to whole milk. Some of these, like trans fats and high-fructose corn syrup, we know are bad for us. Other sources, like olive oil and the sugars that come from carbohydrates (which our bodies need for energy) are actually really good for us. The problem is that it’s not always easy to distinguish the good salts, sugars, and fats from the bad. Much of the processed foods we eat — from canned soup and dehydrated noodles to cookies, potato chips, ready-to-eat meals, and even healthy-looking fruit juices — contain a cocktail of the bad kind, which means that we’re getting a lot more of these compounds than we really need. Worse still, these “new” salts, fats, and sugars are a lot more addictive than the natural ones.
Salt, fat, and sugar have been unofficially christened as the unholy trinity of the processed food world — the hooks that the industry uses to keep consumers obsessed with their products. In his book Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Michael Moss investigates how the processed food industry has concentrated these items in a formulation designed for "maximum bliss.” Moss says that the strategy comes from the work of food scientist Howard Moskowitz, M.D., who tinkered with the food combinations for the U.S. Army in the 1970s, trying to make mass produced food still delicious enough to keep soldiers eating (soldiers often suffered from appetite loss when faced with unpalatable rations). Finding the right combination of salt, sugar, and fat would do the trick, producing what food scientists call the “bliss point.” The food industry, Moss argues, uses the same technique to get customers to keep eating their products, continually driving the bliss point until you’ve eaten that entire box of cookies.
Moss is not alone in his assessment: In an article on food addiction, physician, author, and founder of the UltraWellness Center Mark Hyman, M.D., questions why people don't binge eat broccoli or apples the way they do potato chips, cookies, or salsa? There's something about the salty, sweet, rich processed food that triggers compulsion, almost the same way a drug would. And once you're hooked, telling someone to "just say no" is essentially the same as telling a drug addict to quit cold turkey.
Former Food and Drug Administration commissioner David Kessler, M.D., backs this up by taking a metaphorical sledgehammer to the processed food companies in his book The End of Overeating, accusing them of preying on the public's food addiction the same way tobacco companies exploited the addictive properties of nicotine. The power that unhealthy foods have over us, say Kessler, is the layering of salt over salt, over sugar, over fat, and over more salt. It makes these products "hyper-palatable" by exploiting our biological need for these substances, flooding our brains with pleasure but filling our bellies with empty, unsatisfying calories that only leave us wanting more.
Salts, fats, and sugars can be bad for our health in other ways, too. Refined sugar has been labeled toxic and identified as a cause of Type 2 diabetes for disrupting our bodies’ hormonal cycles and damaging our internal organs. High-fructose corn syrup is taxing on the liver and can lead to kidney stones and high blood pressure, among other problems. Excessive sugar consumption is also said to be one of the main reasons that a third of American adults are obese.
We know that there's high-fructose corn syrup in soda, candy, and cake, but it’s also hidden in many other places where you wouldn’t expect to find it, like yogurts, breads, and packaged macaroni and cheese.
“Fructose is metabolized in a similar way to how alcohol is metabolized,” says Sue Decotiis, M.D. “[It] doesn’t evoke an insulin response, but instead floods the liver with metabolites leading to a rise in triglycerides, less utilization of energy with more conversion to fat, and liver inflammation. Saturated fat is very caloric and, along with excess sugar, can dampen the appetite control mechanisms, leading to a substantially increased appetite.”
Salt is also a tricky customer. Decotiis says that salt is generally mineral rich and good for the body, though too much could lead to fluid imbalances and high blood pressure. But table salt, which we use daily, has all of that goodness processed right out of it, and while table salt in the U.S. does have iodine added, there is still very little nutritional value in it. Sea salt, meanwhile, gets a bit of a fairer shake as it is relatively unprocessed and “retains all its minerals, such as sulphate, magnesium, calcium, potassium, bicarbonate, strontium, bromide, borate, and fluoride.” Both table and sea salt contain equal amounts of sodium chloride, an essential element that helps the body maintain electrolyte balance, blood pressure, and renal functioning.
When it comes down to deciding how bad salt, fat, and sugar are for you, the general rule of thumb should be: proceed with caution. All three, even the processed variety, do have a place in balanced diet. While some processed foods have addictive qualities, a few, like processed whole milk with added vitamin D and calcium, have their benefits. The best way to decide what’s healthy and what isn’t is to be a detective and read every ingredient on your food labels. Stick to the recommended daily allowance for all your foods, drinks, and snacks, and, for your health’s sake, put down that bag of potato chips!
Serusha Govender is The Daily Meal's Travel Editor. Follow her on Twitter @SerushaGovender