We all get junk food cravings from time to time.
If you’ve ever found yourself tucking into a second helping of dessert after a filling dinner, or polishing off a family-sized bag of crisps by yourself, you’ll know we don’t always make the best choices for our body – and that even when it’s trying to tell us to ease off, with some foods it can be incredibly hard to know when to say when.
What is it that makes certain foods seemingly irresistible? That keeps us coming back for more, even when we know we’re full? Or that makes us binge on foods we know are bad for us?
You’d be forgiven for thinking it was all down to you and your willpower – and while of course that plays a role, it’s only part of the story. We often beat ourselves up for giving into our junk food cravings, but it’s no accident that the foods that we hanker after are so hard to resist.
What we don’t realise when we’re struggling to control our consumption of tasty, unhealthy foods is that we’re pitting our willpower against a multimillion dollar industry and decades of research into how to make us cave in and reach for a second helping.
That’s right – certain foods don’t just happen to taste good. They’re specifically engineered to target us right in the pleasure receptors, and entice us back for another hit.
The food industry has been engineering foods to taste the best they possibly can for years. The logic is simple – people like tasty food, so the tastier the food, the more likely we are to buy it, and the more money they make.
Food companies have spent endless time and money on research and testing to ‘optimise’ foods that keep us coming back for more. They’ve made those foods convenient, inexpensive, alluringly packaged and incredibly moreish – a golden ticket for marketers, and a dangerous combination for our waistlines.
So what’s the winning formula? If there’s one man to thank (or curse) for figuring out what sets us reaching for another slice, it’s Howard Moskowitz, an American market researcher known for creating addictive flavour combinations that fly off the shelves – the fascinating story is set out in this New York Times article.
It’s Moskowitz who found that when a salty, sweet or fatty flavour overwhelms our taste buds, we get tired of it and hit the brakes on our consumption – something known as “sensory-specific satiety”.
But when those same elements are combined in carefully measured amounts, there’s a point at which we’re in the ‘Goldilocks zone’ where the flavour is ‘just right’, the ideal hit of each, giving us such a kick that we can’t help but come back for more, even when our bodies are trying to tell us to stop.
And that’s how Moskowitz hit upon the “bliss point” – the exact measures of fat, sugar and salt that make our taste buds tingle and override the brain’s natural “stop” signals. In short, the bliss point is the sweet spot that makes the foods we crave addictive. Cue junk food cravings that seem impossible to resist.
So what’s actually going on when we consume foods engineered like this? Why can’t we get enough?
Our bodies respond to foods that hit the bliss point with a dose of endorphins. They’re the hormones that make us feel good, rewarding us in a remnant our hunter-gatherer days when we needed all the incentive we could get to load up on scarce glucose supplies. The rush of dopamine – the pleasure hormone – to the brain acts like a high, and we keep coming back for more.
Of course, all food can make us happy, and there’s nothing wrong with that – but it’s that food-marketer’s clever trick of combining all our favourite things that really feeds our junk food addiction.
A series of studies show that when rats eat sugars and fats separately, their brains send them messages to stop when they’re full, but when they’re combined in a deliciously decadent duo, their pleasure receptors went into overdrive, overpowering that internal stop switch.
Think about it – would you eat a tub of butter with a spoon? Or polish off a bag of pure sugar? Yet when those things are combined in say, cake, they are much harder to resist.
What’s more, the more rats consumed of these ‘optimised’ foods, the more they had to eat to get that same pleasure hit next time. Plenty of studies have shown that sugar has the same addictive nature, overriding our ability to realise when we’re full. So combined with the bliss point of salt and fat, it’s small wonder that it’s so hard to say no to that next handful of nibbles.
So which foods are the culprits? You might be surprised. It’s more than just the obvious danger zones, like cheesecake, doughnuts and other sweet treats that are engineered to pack that dopamine punch.
Next time you pick up a jar of tomato sauce at the supermarket, stop to take a look at the ingredients and see just how much sugar and salt are hidden inside. Sauces, soups, and even innocuous-seeming products like bread and cereal bars can all contain that longed-for trio of salt, sugar and fat that keeps us coming back for more.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Real food doesn’t need fussy engineering and fancy packaging to taste great, and that’s why we’re wary of processed foods at OurPath.
When you know exactly what’s in your food, you can break the cycle of junk food cravings. Cut down on the processed stuff, making sure you’re making naturally healthy choices – and aren’t being reeled in by the food marketeers while you’re at it.
Check out our five tips to help you kick your junk food addiction, or read more about the OurPath programme.