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.