Why is Junk Food so Addictive?

Junk food is addictive, but not always for the reasons you think. Here are 8 of your favorite junk foods explained:

How Cheetos is like magic food

 Photo: Mike Mozart, License

Photo: Mike Mozart, License

Ever notice how Cheetos puffs have the amazing ability to melt in your mouth? Says food scientist, Steven Witherly to the NY Times, “If something melts down quickly, your brain thinks that there’s no calories in it . . . you can just keep eating it forever.” It's called "vanishing caloric density".  Food manufacturers think it is fabulous. 

Why Lays can say “bet you can’t eat just one”

 Photo Credit:  Mike Mozart , License

Photo Credit: Mike Mozart, License

We already know that salt and fat are a dangerously delicious combination (butter is beautiful for a reason, people!). But what makes potato chips addictive is the sugar that exists in the starch of the potato itself. This causes the glucose levels in the blood to spike, which can result in a craving for more. 

Why you can guzzle down Coke: 

 Photo Credit: Allen, License

Photo Credit: Allen, License

Here's another interesting term -- "sensory-specific satiety".  This means that big, distinct flavors (like sweetness or spice) overwhelm the brain, which forces you to have only small portions of that food or drink. For example, try drinking a gallon of homemade banana smoothie. You would probably start gagging by your second or third glass. Coke, however, ensures this doesn't happen with its drinks. The company has had 122 years to perfect it's formula. The drink piques the taste buds but doesn’t have a single, distinct, overriding flavor that tells the brain to stop drinking. And that's how Coca-cola is the world's biggest brand.  

Why Doritos make you drool 

 Photo from wikipedia. Author:  Scott Ehardt

Photo from wikipedia. Author: Scott Ehardt

Another NY Times article identified 10 characteristics of Doritos nacho chips that make it one of the most popular snacks in the U.S.

1. The expensive Romano cheese gives a brothy flavor to the snack.

2. The garlic flavor is umami, which creates memories of how a food tastes.

3. The high salt content makes us crave more.

4. The combination of salt and MSG powers up all other flavors.

5. The precise formula of the chip ensures that there is no single overriding flavor (remember "sensory-specific satiety").

6. Lactic acid and citric acid get the saliva flowing.

7. The fat content leaves a pleasant sensation in the mouth.

8. The bright orange color is attractive.

9. Like Cheetos, Doritos has considerable vanishing caloric density too. 

10. And lastly, everyone knows that the cheesy gold dust left on your fingers is just bonus. 

Why we put fruity yogurt cups in our grocery cart 

 Photo Credit:  Mike Mozart , License

Photo Credit: Mike Mozart, License

Because we think of yogurt as healthy. In reality though, a serving of sweet yogurt can have twice as much sugar as a serving of Lucky Charms. Yoplait even started yogurt tubes for kids called Go-Gurts, which their parents buy with the best of intentions. 

Why you pick up popsicles and gummy bears

 Photo Credit:  David O'Hare , License

Photo Credit: David O'Hare, License

Food companies add color to their products to make them more appealing. Dr. Linda M. Katz, Chief Medical Officer for the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, says that color additives are incorporated into foods to enhance colors that exist in nature and to add color to fun or colorless food

Why a candy bar tastes so darn good 

 Photo Credit:  Dat Nguyen , License

Photo Credit: Dat Nguyen, License

Again, you can blame sugar, salt, and fat. In an article on Prevention.com, Ashley Gearhardt, professor of psychology at UMich says that human bodies have not evolved to handle this combination. In our hunter-gatherer days, sugar was only found in fruit and honey, and salt was only used as a garnish. For fat, you had to either hunt animals for it or forage for nuts. Modern day processed foods often contain all three, but lack the protein, fiber, and water that help your body handle them.

And lastly, why we can eat a generous helping of pasta (hint: it's in the sauce!)

  Photo Credit:   David Pursehouse  , License

Photo Credit: David Pursehouse, License

By now, you know how carbs and starch work to make your brain crave more. But did you know that pasta sauce plays an important role too?

You may have heard a bit about this in Malcolm Gladwell’s TED talk back in 2004. After doing country-wide market research for months, Prego found out that 1/3 of Americans wanted extra-chunky pasta sauce. And nobody was servicing this need. Clearly, good research was key to Prego's success in the chunky sauce business. 

However, the key reason why processed pasta sauce tastes so good is sugar. Prego sauces — whether cheesy, chunky or light — have one thing in common: The largest ingredient, after tomatoes, is sugar. One serving also delivers a third of the sodium recommended for an entire day. The combination is what gets consumers to reach their "bliss point". 

And that, folks, is how the big food manufacturers have us hooked and add pounds to our waistlines. A much healthier alternative? Home-style food made fresh daily from Kitchen Stadium

Visit NY Times to read a long but fascinating account on how the junk food industry formulates its products.