29 Mar 2021

'Junk food is as addictive as other drugs'

From Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan, 3:06 pm on 29 March 2021

If you can't eat just one hot chip or lolly that's because they're engineered to be not just moreish, but downright addictive. 

Junk food can be just as addictive as cigarettes and alcohol says Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Michael Moss. He journeys into the underbelly of the food industry's ruthless exploitation of science to get us to put more of what they make in our bellies.

His new book is called Hooked: Food, Free Will, and How the Food Giants Exploit Our Addictions. He tells Afternoons that, four years ago, he would have thought the idea that junk food is as addictive as cigarettes to be ludicrous.

Close up of fast food snacks and drink on table.

Close up of fast food snacks and drink on table. Photo: 123rf.com

“But I have to say that, after crawling inside this processed food industry once again, there’s little doubt in my mind that many of these products are actually more problematic than some of the harshest drugs and, one of the overarching reasons, is that these companies have figured out how to tap into and exploit our natural, biological, instincts – that’s the power of these products.”

Addiction is a difficult thing to quantify or define and Moss says the tobacco industry denied, for decades, that smoking was addictive on that basis.

“When you use the word addiction, you get a fuller understanding of why so many people are troubled by their dependency on eating these ultra-processed or convenience foods. Addiction happens on a spectrum and, at one end, people have eating disorders and total loss of control. On the other end spectrum there are many of us losing control on a more gradual basis, day to day becoming more dependent on these products.

“Look at the obesity rate in the United States now – and the rest of the world isn’t far behind – 42 percent of adults are clinically obese and another 30 percent are overweight. To me, that’s a measure and example of a loss of control over our eating habits that can be tied directly to these food products.”

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Photo: Penguin Random House

An evolutionary biologist and neuroscientist Moss spoke to told him that it’s not so much that the products are addictive, it’s that humans by nature are drawn to food and eating, and the food companies have changed the nature of our food in the past 50 years in a manner that our biology hasn’t been able to catch up to.

“There’s this huge mismatch between the way our bodies are designed and the way these products are designed.”

Moss says the brain gets excited by the number of calories in food which it sees as fuel, so companies find ways to pack small products as full of calories as possible.

“Our food memories start developing at a super-young age, possibly while we’re still in the womb. Then, scientists talk about the adolescence bump where we start creating memories that are stronger and longer lasting than at any other time in our life, so the food companies spend enormous amounts of energy and money trying to create memories and associate products with those memories.

“That’s why Coco-Cola determined they were going to put Coke in every sports stadium in North America so that, when a child gets that Coke, they’re sitting there with their parents in this joyous moment of their life which the Coke will be forever associated with.”

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