Hooked on a Feeling

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When public awareness opened to the dangers of smoking a few decades ago, it marked a bitter turning point for the tobacco industry. Alongside the long-term consequences of smoking, the greatest stir was caused by the revelation of the enormously addictive nature of nicotine. Taxes were levied, commercials banned, the minimum age raised. The consequences on the industry were expressed in terms of crashing revenues. The food industry might soon meet a similar fate. Of course we’ve long known that fast food and candy aren’t exactly healthy. It seems however that the addictive nature of such products has long been underestimated. Studies in recent years have shown that some of our favorite treats contain substances that create dependencies similar to cocaine and other drugs.

Attention was drawn to this issue in the first place by the alarming rate of increase of obesity in western industrialized countries. The unquestionable forerunner in this field continues to be the United States, which holds the sad record of having one third of its total population classified as “obese”. Of the 314 million inhabitants, it has been estimates that by 2030 around 165 million will fall into this category. The 50% mark would thereby be exceeded. But what’s the cause of this? Can we not practice moderation? Shouldn’t we be able to know better?

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Of course, most people know that too much sugar and fat don’t exactly lead to a wholesome diet. We learn this in primary school at the latest. But how often do we decide to abstain from unhealthy foods, only to succumb to our guilty pleasures at the first opportunity? There are simply too many temptations. An essential problem with all this is that we often can’t do much with good intentions alone. The source of our desire for unhealthy foods lies hidden in the depths of our brain. When we ingest sugar for example, (something humans have always done, although today we do it in vast quantities) the arrival of sugar in the blood stimulates the production of the body’s own insulin. Insulin has the task of removing sugar and all its associated carbohydrates from the blood, to then distribute it to other cells which convert it into energy. Insulin production has, however, another quite pleasant side effect: it stimulates the formation of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain. The substance, also called the “happiness hormone”, is, as the name suggests, partially responsible for our well-being. Depression, for example, can often be attributed to low serotonin levels. It comes into play to give us a pleasant feeling of serenity. And what brain would deny itself that pleasure once it has known the experience?

The food industry naturally takes advantage of this Achilles heel. Bob Drane, an executive at Oscar Mayer as well as the inventor of Lunchables, said in a presentation to medical students: “Discover what consumers want to buy and give it to them with both barrels. Our limbic brains love sugar, fat, salt … So formulate products to deliver these. Perhaps add low-cost ingredients to boost profit margins. Then ‘supersize’ to sell more.” Of course, sugar and fat have always been part of the human diet, but as Drane rightly observes, the industrial application of such substances is now so advanced that their dosage can be adapted precisely to profit the most promising market needs. It goes without saying that this works in favor of profit and at the expense of health.

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The case of Lunchables offers an excellent example of this approach. The product was born out of necessity and over the years developed into one of the most successful (and probably also most unhealthy) snacks in the food industry.

During the mid 1980s, sales of industrially produced meat were stagnating in the United States. The Oscar Mayer Company, one of the largest American producers of meat products, with a focus on sausage, ham and mortadella, was especially hard hit. An elaborate market research project conducted under the direction of Bob Drane determined that their main target group, working mothers between 25 and 49, simply didn’t have the time to make packed sandwiches with mortadella for their children every morning. Focusing on the factor of saving time, they developed a product which turned mortadella into a side dish, together with crackers and cheese. A “make your own sandwiches” package. Visually, the lunch packet made reference to classic American TV dinners.

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It should be clear to everyone that TV dinners, while representative of many things, do not stand for healthy diets. In keeping with the above strategy, the corresponding “low-cost ingredients” were used in producing Lunchables. And this brings us closer to the issue of dependency. The cheese ingredient was industrially processed, the kind we recognize from packaged microwave burgers. On one hand this was done for cost reasons; on the other, normal cheese would never survive the two months it had to be kept in storage rooms without going bad. While Germany has fairly firm regulations regarding food products referred to as “cheese”, the term is distinctly malleable in the US. Frequently, such cheese products contain high levels of fats, preservatives, coloring agents, and emulsifiers. For example, a slice of Kraft cheese (which, starting in 1989, supplied the cheese for Oscar Mayers Lunchables) contains about 25% fat, as well as sodium citrate emulsifiers (E 331) and calcium phosphate (E 341). The emulsifiers provide the “soft” melting effects as well as prevent crumbling and flaking. The keyword here is mouth feeling.

This mouth feeling is that which, combined with melted fat, sugar and other flavorings, can lead to addiction. When we ingest something that tastes good to us, the brain releases neurotransmitter dopamine, related to serotonin. The neurotransmitter affects, among other things, the limbic system of the brain, which is also referred to as the “reward system”. This same area is also stimulated through the consumption of amphetamines or cocaine. Dopamine is one of the main reasons people enjoy things like sex, sports, drugs and junk food. For us to notice this happiness inducer, it needs to dock into the D2 receptor in our synapses. If the receptor is repeatedly confronted with large amounts of dopamine, its sensitivity is driven down, so that it can continue handling such quantities. As a result, ever greater amounts of dopamine are needed to maintain the original level of satisfaction, so as to prevent us from falling into a constant state of ill-being. In a study by Paul Kenny at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla (California), experiments found that when rats were fed greasy and sugary foods, the development of dopamine levels in their brain behaved just as they would with cocaine or heroin addictions. Not only did they quickly put on weight, but they soon showed the characteristics of serious addiction. Even under the application of electric shocks, they were unable to stop snacking.

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Back to the 90s: Lunchables sales are rocketing and raking in the profits. The motto “supersize to sell more” finds its cause. To expand their concept, a dessert and drink are added to the package. “Dessert” in this case meant a Snickers bar, a bag of M&M’s or a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. As for the drink, there was a choice between Kool-Aid, Cola, or Capri Sun. To add insult to injury, a “Maxed Out” version was introduced soon thereafter. And Maxed Out it was by all means: a single package already contained a child’s entire recommended daily intake of saturated fats. The ingredient list does not inspire confidence: Glucose-fructose corn syrup, sucralose, corn starch, corn syrup, sodium nitrite, artificial flavours, and so on and so forth.

Corn syrup in particular heightens the risk of dependency, due to its high proportion of sugar and fructose. Since fructose is not absorbed by the body’s own insulin, its over-consumption can lead to metabolic disorders such as obesity, hypertension, gout and even kidney damage. Since the use of corn syrup and other sweeteners is considerably cheaper than real sugar, this risk, taken to reduce production costs, is considered acceptable. That said, the enormous potential for dependency on sugary foods slowly started crystallizing.

In 2010, researchers at the University of Texas conducted a series of tests in which 26 overweight women were given milkshakes made of Häagen-Dazs ice cream and Hershey’s chocolate syrup, while their brains underwent magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). When they were re-scanned 6 months later, the women who had gained weight showed lower activity in their striatum, the area of the brain where rewards are processed. As with the rats, their brains became desensitized to the satisfying effects of dopamine through excessive consumption of sugar and fat. The stimulus limit needed to be increased again in order to obtain the initial effect; a pattern which until then had only been observed in drug addicts.

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There would surely be a collective outcry if it were to come out that food companies knowingly add addictive substances so as to reap larger profits from their consumer base. On the one hand, we would be outraged at the criminal offense, and on the other, we’d have to recognize that we had let it go so far, despite the signs being so readily apparent. And although the trend in western industrialized countries continuously moves towards healthier eating, the number of obese people has nonetheless skyrocketed. The classification of substances and the quantities in which they are allowed to be used is still decided at the political level. But the food industry may also have its bit to say. That’s why it is even more important that science findings like these manifest themselves in the public consciousness. As we can see from smoking bans, the alliance between lobbying and legislation only gets activated through external pressure. Imagine a world where chocolate bars are adorned with health warnings, where eating ice cream is prohibited in public buildings, and only people over 18 are allowed to enter McDonald’s. Perhaps a bit drastic, is it not? Even if food companies must be scrutinized more meticulously, the solution, if there ever will be a real one, may not be strictly political. The entire point, after all, is this: as much as the authorities could protect us from the lure of the industry, we would still ruthlessly deliver ourselves to their clutches. The human body needs sugar, not to mention the brain. The fact that our biochemical Achilles heel is exploited unscrupulously by Lunchables & Co, is unfortunately only one side of the coin. If we no longer want to play into the hands of progressive obesity, we must – and I know it’s not something anyone likes to hear – bite the literal bullet and moderate. Mind Over Matter.

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