Why you’re addicted to certain foods (and what you can do about it)
A Pulitzer prize winner, Michael Moss’s new book examines the food industry’s part in the obesity crisis. He also has some tips to stay slim
e’re all so fat now, but whose fault is it? Perhaps the best person to ask is Michael Moss. He is an investigative reporter who has been a Pulitzer prize finalist three times and won it once, for an investigation into the dangers of contaminated meat. His first book on how the food industry manipulates our taste buds, Salt, Sugar, Fat, was a New York Times bestseller in 2013.
In a wolf-as-bonneted-grandmother scenario, Nestlé invited Moss to talk to its research and development team after he had called its Hot Pockets brand “a poster child for mindless eating”. (Hot Pockets are microwaveable turnovers with such fillings as pepperoni and sausage pizza or meatball and mozzarella, so you be the judge.)
“They said they wanted to hear all the things they’d done wrong because they were trying to turn the corner and change their formulations to help us out,” Moss tells me over the phone from his home in Brooklyn, New York. He gave a 30-minute speech to which there was “polite applause”.
Moss says the industry has since made efforts to cut back on salt, sugar and fat. “Nestlé and the other companies can do that pretty well, especially since they were adding so much to begin with, but they can’t figure out to add good things to their products, like make a Hot Pocket stuffed with, say, broccoli rabe.” Yet despite this, he says, “Our trouble with food has continued to go up — in obesity rates and type 2 diabetes.”
According to Public Health England, 63 per cent of adults were classed as being overweight or obese in 2015. Without oversimplifying the issue, the processed food industry’s part in this is significant. So what is it doing that’s unhelpful? And why does it work? These are some of the questions that Moss sought answers to in his new book, Hooked — How Processed Food Became Addictive.
As a recent debate on the subject in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition underlined, experts remain divided over whether cheeseburgers, crisps and biscuits can be considered addictive in the same way that, say, cigarettes or class A drugs are.
Moss’s opinion has shifted significantly since he wrote Salt, Sugar, Fat. “Five years ago, no way I would say fast food and groceries were as addictive as heroin, and here I am knowing from very smart people that in some ways they’re worse,” he said on Twitter last week. One of these smart people was a leading evolutionary biologist who told him, “It’s not so much that food’s addictive, it’s that we by nature are drawn to eating and the problem is the companies have changed the nature of food.”
Reading Hooked is to understand why greed is good. “Our attraction for calories makes sense evolutionarily,” Moss says. To ensure survival, “the brain and body is designed not just to eat but to overeat and to put on lots of body fat. And that was a terrific thing up until 50 years ago when suddenly the food companies figured out ways to tap those basic instincts.
“When you look at ultra-processed food, one of the biggest characteristics is that it’s densely packed with calories, which is going to get the brain really excited — a lot more than, say, eating a stick of celery or a carrot.” At this point I realise that, faced with an open jar of Pringles, we can’t possibly be held responsible for our actions. The book should have been called Off the Hook.
Sometimes, and often in the spirit of a cat swallowing a pill, the big brands have made changes, such as by removing trans fats from many products. We’re also more cautious about buying ultra-processed foods, which in 2015 led the Campbell Soup Company chief executive to sorrowfully observe the “mounting distrust of Big Food”.
Yet although the brain’s love of sugar is old news, it’s still not easy to avoid succumbing to it. You can ditch high-fructose corn syrup from your diet, for example, but it’s just one of more than 60 sugars in the food industry’s arsenal.
Moss cites the industry’s use of maltodextrin “as an ingredient in a bunch of products as it adds bulk and calories without adding sweet taste”. So why use it, I ask naively. Because we’re drawn to calories even if we can’t consciously detect them. He describes an experiment by scientists studying food addiction. “They present two glasses of water to people. One contains maltodextrin and the other doesn’t. The person drinking it can’t tell, but will almost invariably choose the one with maltodextrin as the one they like the most because our body — the gut and possibly even the mouth — has sensors in it to detect calories.”
Then there’s protein. We regard it as good for us, so in recent years manufacturers have taken to dumping token amounts of it into snack bars and sugary cereals. “When they splash the word ‘protein’ on the front of the label, or ‘fibre’, we’re more apt to lower our guard,” Moss says.
We form emotional attachments to certain foods: Moss cites tests from 2013 in which the behavioural scientist Eric Stice ran a group of 15-year-olds through a brain scanner while showing them a picture of the Coke logo. Half didn’t drink soda, half habitually had at least one Coke a day. In the latter, the sight of the logo was able to light up parts of the brain associated with desire. They had formed deep memories with their habit. (As has Rishi Sunak, apparently — an old video of the chancellor claiming in an embarrassing gaffe to be a “a total Coke addict” resurfaced last week.)
One factor in addiction is the speed at which a substance hits the brain. As Moss notes, it takes cigarette smoke ten seconds. A dot of sugar on the tongue takes about half a second. But as he says: “Food doesn’t have the same harsh chemicals that tobacco, alcohol and drugs have in them, so I thought, ‘How can you possibly compare a Twinkie with heroin?’ In fact, when scientists scanned the brains of people simply contemplating their favourite junk foods, they resembled the brain on cocaine.”
Craving is another parallel. Seeing, smelling or even thinking about, say, chocolate, activates dopamine, our brain’s reward system (or as one scientist puts it, “the biological need-satisfying system”). In its own way, Moss says, chocolate “does exactly the same thing as alcohol and cigarettes by triggering those natural chemicals. They’re there because evolutionarily we were designed to be drawn to food or we’d starve. That’s one of the key aspects of our biology — getting excited enough about food to put it in our mouth and eat it.”
Sugar also activates our natural opioids such as endorphins, chemicals that bring pain relief, reduce anxiety and enhance mood. Moss quotes research that found that “when you add fat to sugar we are less capable of recognising the calories or sweetness of that product and we’re less apt to put the brakes on eating. It’s almost like the fat has a way of putting the stop part of the brain to sleep, the thinking part that says, ‘Hey wait a minute, you’re going too far here, Michael.’”
He notes that the typical processed snack is 24 per cent fat and 57 per cent sugar. “Even that most basic formula of ultra-processed food, this combination of fat and sugar, may be having this effect of putting the rational, thinking part of our brain to sleep.”
The ready-to-eat, on-the-go anytime, anywhere aspect of certain products is another strategy. “Because the faster they can get us to act on impulse, the less likely the thinking part of the brain will have time to catch up, so this whole mindless eating — creating these snacks that you can eat with one hand while doing something else — plays right into that biology where our go brain gets excited so quickly that the stop brain doesn’t have time to catch up. And that’s another hallmark of addiction.
“The faster the drug or cigarette smoke can get to the brain, the more powerfully it will respond, and you’ll be off running to get more of that substance before your rational thinking can catch up and put the brakes on.”
So this is why, when we’re crunching Maltesers while watching The Serpent — our brain thrilled that each tiny ball is 11 calories in case the harvest fails — we’re surprised to be scrabbling for the last one already. We’re propelled by a frenzy of lust and pleasure that crushes awareness or reason.
It doesn’t matter even if disappointment creeps in because they don’t taste as divine as advertised or imagined. The brain suggests we merely need more to recapture that high, making it harder to distinguish between wanting and liking, and to kick the habit.
The clinical psychologist who devised the Yale Food Addiction Scale — she had previously studied alcoholism — found that 15 per cent of the population met the criteria at its core: “a loss of control in consumption”. Yet the percentage is likely to be higher. As Moss says, no one likes to admit food is getting the better of them.
Moss previously claimed a weakness for crisps, but when reminded, is almost apologetic. “I’m counting myself as incredibly fortunate. I can open a package of crisps, have a handful, close it up and put it away.” Oh really, I say sternly. “I know. I feel so lucky.”
All he can offer is that this might change were he to experience some kind of mental turmoil. The pandemic, he says, has “translated into soaring sales for cookies and snacks companies. We’re vulnerable to mindless eating in times of stress.” Indeed we are, and the industry has ruthlessly exploited our evolutionary instincts to make monkeys of us.
Hooked: How Processed Food Became Addictive by Michael Moss is published by WH Allen
Ways to satisfy your food craving
Michael Moss says that learning how Big Food takes advantage was “oddly empowering”. He has used it to change his eating habits — and so can we.
Plan for that craving
Don’t run the risk of getting so hungry that you binge. “One thing I learned from the drug experts is, if you have a real craving for something, the key is to have a plan and execute it in a timely way before that craving can overwhelm you,” Moss says. “So if you know you get a craving for chocolate at 3pm, you should probably be doing something else at 2.55.” That might be calling a friend, or taking your healthier fall-back food — prepared earlier — out of the fridge.
Snack, but snack wisely
“I’m a big snacker, but I don’t snack on junk,” Moss says. “Substitute in a better-for-you food that has enough excitement to help you avoid going for the thing you’re trying to resist. I snack on last night’s leftovers. Or I love a handful of nuts in the afternoon. Who knows if it’s the protein or the fibre, but it’s enough to carry me over to dinner.”
Create meals with healthy contrast textures
Peanut M&M’s, for instance, with its brittle exterior, soft chocolate and crunchy nut, is constructed to be irresistible because “one of the greatest sensations is a mix of textures called dynamic contrast”, Moss says. His dynamic contrast “addiction” is blueberries, yoghurt and granola.
Don’t drink calories
Even Moss’s 16-year old son, who is not above heating a frozen pizza for lunch, chooses carbonated water over fizzy drinks. “The bubbles in seltzer are oddly alluring to us — they’re almost as powerful as sugar in the way they excite the brain, so he’s finding that the excitement from the bubbles are enough to get him to dodge whatever craving he has for sweetness,” Moss says. Caveat: he maintains “the false belief that wine and beer contain no calories”.
Make your own ‘fast food’
By falling for convenience foods, Moss says, “it’s really important to remember what we’ve lost. We’ve lost the ritual and beauty of sitting down to home-cooked meals.” He has found ways “to embrace convenience foods by my own definition. Making my own spaghetti sauce, which is so easy using a can of plum tomatoes. Life is crazy — who has time to spend two hours cooking a dinner? But you don’t have to.”