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Op-Ed: Big Food wants us addicted to junk food. New brain science may break its grip

Photo illustration of several chocolate chip cookies with black scribbles in the background.
(Photo illustration by Nicole Vas / Los Angeles Times; Rumeysa Aydin / Unsplash)

Robert Goldstein, a hedge fund manager in New York, was getting huge cravings for sweets when he came across a tropical plant called Gymnema sylvestre that works a little like methadone for heroin addicts.

Compounds extracted from the woody vine keep the brain from getting overly excited for sugar by disabling the sweet receptors on the tongue. For an hour or so, brownies and doughnuts and Oreo cookies all taste like putty, which helped Goldstein control his cravings so well that he put the plant’s extract into little white pills, which he named Sweet Defeat. Said one review: “It’s like willpower in a bottle!”

Unplugging your senses to curb a desire might seem a bit extreme for something like food, but there is growing evidence that much of what’s being sold at the grocery store and fast-food restaurants is more seductive than we knew. It’s designed to make us want to eat more, and in ways that impede our ability to say no.

Processed-food makers do this in part by perfecting their use of additives to maximize the appeal of their products. Sugar, for instance, which many people cite as a trigger for cravings, is now being added to an estimated two-thirds of the items in the supermarket. And new research by Dana Small, a neuroscientist at Yale University, shows that we’re even more vulnerable to the combination of sugar and fats in things like milkshakes and chocolate chip cookies. In tandem they excite the area of the brain called the striatum, which is associated with compulsive behavior.

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But Big Food, a $1-trillion industry, is even more cunning in shaping our eating habits by taking advantage of our deepest instincts when it comes to food. We are by nature drawn to food that is easily obtained (that is, cheap), so food manufacturers use chemical laboratories called flavor houses that search for the cheapest formulations, knowing that we’ll get excited by a box of toaster pastries that costs 10 cents less than it did last week.

We are also drawn to variety, and thus the cereal aisle has 200 versions of sugary starch to excite our brain with the illusion of nutrition. Most critically, we have evolved to seek maximum calories for fuel. We have sensors in the gut and possibly in the mouth that tell us how many calories we’re eating, and the more calories there are, the more excited the brain gets, which makes us vulnerable to the processed-food industry’s snacks, jam-packed as they are with a day’s worth of calories we can eat in one sitting.

These industry tactics, which are used to exploit our biology, has made overeating an everyday thing, with the obesity rate pushing past 42% even before the pandemic.

In my research, I found that hyperprocessed, convenient food products can be as addictive as cigarettes, alcohol and drugs, if not more so, using the industry’s own definition. In 2000, when Philip Morris was both the largest maker of cigarettes and processed food (through its acquisition of General Foods, Kraft and Nabisco), the company’s CEO said, “Addiction is a repetitive behavior that some people find difficult to quit.” But when it comes to reducing our dependence on processed foods, there is a bright spot in this. We can draw guidance from our experience in dealing with other habit-forming substances.

If your trouble is the 3 p.m. craving for cookies, drug experts who now study food have learned that cravings destroy willpower. So it’s critical to get ahead of the craving. If your strategy is standing up to stretch, calling a friend or eating something better for you, you need to be doing that at 2:55, before the craving sends you dashing in search of cookies.

The go-to strategy for drug addicts is abstention, but that can’t work with food. Dieting to lose weight is a form of abstention, and full of treachery, from quick-fix hucksters to the unsettling circumstance that many of the most popular dieting methods came to be owned by the processed-food industry itself.

One of the strategies addiction scientists are focusing on involves changing how we value food. Instead of letting food manufacturers dictate what we want, we need to figure out what matters in eating habits. The problem, of course, is the deluge of processed-food advertising that has shaped our thinking for the past 50 years.

Eric Stice, a professor at Stanford University, has discovered that merely gaining weight makes us more vulnerable by increasing our sensitivity to food advertising, or “cues.” Stice is now researching ways to help us rewire our brains to change the balance between the part that compels us to act compulsively and the part that considers the consequences of our actions. One technique involves playing computer games with pictures of food to train the attention region of the brain to get less excited by high-calorie foods like, say, French fries, and more interested in steamed broccoli.

In one trial, this helped people lose body fat; in another, each hour spent playing this game was associated with a 2.3% reduction in body fat. The hope is that more hours, combined with other strategies, will produce better results.

In England, researchers at the University of Exeter who have turned this technique into an app called FoodT say it reduces cravings and helps users eat less. They are now testing a personalized option in which you can upload pictures of the foods that give you the most trouble.

Regaining control of our eating habits is tough business. But given how effectively the processed-food industry has learned to manipulate our desires and habits, we have to find ways to defend ourselves against unhealthful eating, which drives much of the chronic illnesses that plague nearly half of all Americans.

Michael Moss, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist, is the author, most recently, of “Hooked: Food, Free Will, and How the Food Giants Exploit Our Addictions.”


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