Hyperpalatable Food and Obesity

Author: Mark Holland MD
Date: March 23, 2016

Are Food Companies Using Tactics from Big Tobacco?

Tobacco companies sold addictive drugs to the American public for decades all the while claiming that smoking was a simple choice and not in any way an addiction. We now know that these companies hid from the public a number of internal documents that showed that they did in fact know that they were selling a dangerous and addicting product. In fact, tobacco companies worked very hard to make their products MORE addicting. They knew exactly what they were doing.

Some foods are more like drugs: A retouched photo of a burger, fries and a drink.
Is Junk Food the 'New Tobacco'?

So here we are in the year 2016 and the lung cancer epidemic has begun slowly to fade (a little) but the obesity epidemic is out of control. Could it be that junk food is the new tobacco? Could it be that at least part of the reason for the obesity epidemic is that some foods are actually engineered to be addicting in much the same way that tobacco was?  Sadly, it is starting to seem that the answer is 'yes'. 

The Economics of Food Addiction

Companies that sell food make more money when they sell more food. They have an interest in making food taste as good as possible. For years, this meant having the best recipe. It still does. But what happens when the 'recipe' calls for, say 'monosodium glutamate' or a number other other 'excitotoxins' (chemicals that may (but may not) cause real harm to the nervous system but that clearly make foods taste better because they act as drugs)? What happens when foods are 'engineered' with as much care as a jet aircraft? And what happens when that engineering has only one goal: to make people want to eat as much as possible?
What might happen is obesity. 
For decades we have struggled to find the causes of the human obesity epidemic. We have speculated that it is related to inactivity from television or video games or the internet. And it probably is related to those thing. We also have suspected that it might indeed be related to the kind of food that we eat.  But historically, we believed that it was because food was too 'available' or too high in sugar or too high in fat. And of course it certainly IS related to those factors. But what we had not suspected until recently is something a little more disturbing and a lot more subtle and sinister: that foods are becoming as addictive as tobacco.
Consider this: 'Flamin' Hot Cheetos' are now an alternate currency in the US prison system. They are, essentially, like gold. And then consider that they are also one of the most popular 'snacks' among US children. You might scratch your head a few minutes and puzzle over those facts before you begin to see a pattern. 'Flamin Hot Cheetos' are addictive.

Addiction, Evolution and the Human Brain

History has been a long struggle against starvation and because of it, the human brain is designed to crave food and the more calories a food has, the faster those calories can go to work, the less chewing and digesting is needed to get at those calories, the more the brain craves it and the more the brain feels pleasure (or WE feel pleasure) when we eat it. This pleasure is caused by 'turning on' what are called 'reward pathways' in the brain. These are 'circuits' in the brain that cause pleasure. They are in fact the same circuits that are activated by addictive drugs including... nicotine. And so, lo and behold, foods can act as drugs. And foods DO act as drugs. They always have and they always will. 
But what happens when we select the foods with the most powerful drug-like effects---the foods that most potently activate the brain's reward pathways---the foods that act most like drugs---the foods that are most addicting?
What happens when we turn food addiction into a science and use that science to engineer foods to be addicting so that we can sell them to the unsuspecting public?
What might happen is obesity.

Fruit being injected with fat chemicals
How to Make Food Addicting 101

A lot of what makes food addicting is obvious and some of it is not.
  1. SUGAR: Add lots of sugar. Sugar is the fastest acting food on earth. That alone makes it addicting. It also tastes really good and it is easy to digest. In fact, it doesn't even need to be digested. It can be absorbed right in your mouth.
  2. FAT: Fat carries flavor well so foods taste richer. Fat has a huge number of calories per gram, so evolution has taught us to crave it. And fat has 'mouthfeel'. It makes foods more 'comforting' (and a lot more fattening).
  3. SALT: Salt was hard to come by ten thousand years ago. And we do need salt. So evolution taught us to crave it. Salt makes food taste better. So if you want to make food addictive, use plenty of salt
  4. CRUNCH: Taste testing shows that we love crunchy food and I don't mean the kind of crunch in celery. I mean the kind of crunch in crispy fried foods like, say, 'Flamin' Hot Cheetos'
  5. SHRINKAGE: Taste tests show that we love foods that shrink in our mouths---big puffy, crunchy things that dissolve away when we eat them.
  6. SPICE: In the last few years, food companies have discovered something we have long-known here in New Mexico: spicy-hot foods are addictive.
  7. GLUTAMATE: Glutamic acid is an amino acid and building block of protein. But it is also a neurotransmitter and when it is in the form of a salt (as in 'mono-sodium-glutamate[MSG]), it is a very fast-acting neurotransmitter that makes the taste buds on our tongues 'taste' a lot more. MSG 'wakes up food flavor' (to borrow the line from 'Accent') because it 'wakes up' taste buds. It is a drug. Now, as you may know, consumers are wise to the problems from MSG and they tend not to buy foods whose labels list "MSG' as an ingredient. If you are a food company, that is bad. You don't want consumers knowing that you are trying to get them hooked. They might not buy your addicting food and they certainly won't feed them to kids. But...alas...there is a solution: "Hydrolysed vegetable protein" (HVP). You may have seen HVP on a food label and though 'vegetable protein' can't be bad. Well, yes it can because HVP is mostly monosodium glutamate! How do they get away with this? Well, big corporations spend tens of millions of dollars lobbying our government to ensure that very little happens to threaten their 'business model'.
Holland's Five Rules to Avoid Eating Garbage

I thought I'd end this with a list of mine of signs that a food is likely to be addictive garbage. So....
Don't Eat it IF...
  1. It is sold UNREFRIGERATED in a sealed plastic bag (unless its coffee)
  2. It has pictures of kids or animals on the bag or container
  3. It is sold in a vending machine or COULD BE SOLD IN A VENDING machine
  4. It is sold at checkout stands right next to the National Enquirer
  5. They serve it in school cafeterias.

I'll have more to say in a later post.

Mark Holland


The term "hyperpalatable" basically means "tastes TOO good" and was coined by former FDA Commissioner David Kessler, MD in his new book titled The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite. 
Kessler's claim is that eating foods rich in salt AND fat or sugar AND fat leads to brain chemistry changes that look a lot like the changes seen in classical drug addiction. In other words, Kessler claims, these foods get people "high" by triggering so-called "reward pathways" in the brain that normally helped our species survive when food was scarce and death by starvation was common by, say,  causing us to obsessively seek-out the most calorie-rich foods we could find. In Kessler's view, this once-helpful reward "high" has backfired in modern life where we are constantly bombarded with "hyperpalatable" foods like 'Flamin' Hot Cheetos' which have recently been banned by schools right here in New Mexico and in California and Illinois*. 

Red Hot Flamin' Cheetos: Obesigen or Poop Dye?
*To be fair though, the ban may have more to do with the fact that 'Flamin Hot Cheetos' cause kids' stool to become colored blood-red leading kids and their parents to panic and rush to emergency rooms in large numbers.

At any rate, Dr. Kessler has received a lot of good press for his ideas and so they deserve to be examined carefully. 
I think that Dr. Kessler is mistaken in several important ways:
His claim is nothing new. We have long-known that foods trigger brain chemical rewards and this is widely understood to be part of normal human appetite. To put it another way, most people understand that it's hard to stop eating 'Ben and Jerry's' Ice Cream or a bag of greasy, salty potato chips. So thanks Dr. Kessler, but what new idea are you claiming?
Almost all people like "hyperpalatable foods", but only to a point and in many cases, after that point, they stop eating.Some people may NOT stop but that may because they lack a 'turn-off' switch for almost all foods.
Hyperpalatable foods certainly can contribute to weight gain, but it is at least as likely that they do so because they are very high in fat as it is that they are uniquely addicting.
Hyperpalatable foods aren't really as new as Dr. Kessler suggests. Salty, greasy sausage, 'beef sticks', potato chips, French fries and ice cream have been abundant and accessible far longer than the American obesity epidemic has existed. Yes, they are MORE accessible today, but is that why people are eating more of these things (if in fact they are?) and if indeed these foods are truly addicting, wouldn't people have been clamoring for them down the ages? 
Dr. Kessler says that he conceived his theory after watching an overweight woman on Oprah Winfrey's television talk show.   That may or may not be a good thing. But after having developed his ideas, Kessler, at least in his book, attempts to validate them with anecdote. He isn't so much practicing science as he is persuading with loose logic. Yes, Americans eat more salt and fat than ever, but is that because these things are addicting or because they are cheap and easy to get? OR is it none of the above. Might it be that obesity and the desire to eat fat and salt are both caused by some deeper, perhaps hidden aberration like, say, stress? We don't really know and neither does Dr. Kessler.
Still, I don't mean to attack Dr. Kessler personally. He did a great job during his tenure at FDA and he is a great physician. But he is also selling a diet book and that goal is best accomplished by making dramatic claims.

Update: November 13, 2012 (By Mark Holland MD)

My office manager, Matt Copus, just purchased a bag of  Flamin' Hot Cheetos for me to taste. The verdict?
They ARE tasty... VERY tasty in that way that crunch, grease, salt, sour and intense spice tends to be. They are kind of like a Funion dipped in hot sauce and MSG. They definitely "feel" like a forbidden food  to me. When I was younger I used to order fried shrimp's heads at my favorite Japanese restaurant. They were basically big salty crunchy deep fried balls of, well, oil and salt. That's about how Flamin' Hot Cheetos taste. Certainly NOT healthy. 
They ARE red. VERY red.
Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is a major ingredient in the "Flamin' Hot Seasoning". Since MSG IS basically a drug, this "food" product might really be addicting (my apologies to Dr. Kessler). 
I ate about ten "Cheetos" or whatever they're called of this junk and quickly developed a headache. Is it the MSG? Is it the sodium threatening to burst a blood vessel in my brain? Is it my imagination? 
I'm pretty sure that a diet of "Flamin' Hot Cheetos", Big Macs and Coke could kill most people in a few years. I KNOW that it would kill me. So, umm...... why DO we feed this to kids?