In this day and age, fast food restaurants are on every other block and processed foods monopolize grocery store shelves. One reason why these unhealthy foods are consumed in such great quantities is that major food corporations (think: Nestlé, Coca-Cola, Kraft) actively engineer addictive food.

These corporations manufacture food to optimize “craveability” and increase sales. They employ whole departments of food scientists to discover the flavors, colors, and textures that consumers enjoy most.

Food addiction

Photo by Dannah Strauss

Love the way chips crunch in your mouth? Research has been done to determine exactly how crunchy most people like their potato chips. Ever feel like you could keep eating Cheetos Puffs and never get full? The way that they melt quickly in your mouth is called “vanishing caloric density.” If something melts quickly, the brain doesn’t think there as many calories in it, so you might keep eating without really registering the amount.

Still not convinced that processed food can be addictive? Yale University recently developed a Food Addiction Scale, similar to many scales used to analyze drug addiction. It turns out that the same neural pathways that are activated by addictive drugs are also activated by consuming foods high in sugar. Sugar also can trigger the release of neurotransmitters closely linked to addiction, such as dopamine.

Food addiction

Photo by Kelly Logan

In a stunning example of the addictive potential of food, an experiment at Connecticut College using lab rats found that Oreo cookies can be just as addictive as cocaine.

In the experiment, scientists put rats through a maze and fed them a rice cake on one side and an Oreo on the other, and and then compared the amount of time the rat spent on each side of the maze. The researchers then compared these findings to a similar experiment with rats injected with saline on one side and cocaine or morphine on the other.


Food addiction

Photo by Sydney Segal

The results: rats offered Oreos spent a similar amount of time on the reward side of the maze as as rats offered cocaine. Measuring neuronal activations in the brain’s pleasure center, scientists found that Oreos actually activated more neurons than cocaine or morphine.

Basically, big food companies are mostly concerned with turning a profit, so they design their products to be irresistible to consumers, which in turn can encourage overeating. What do you think? Should there be more regulation of the food industry? Should companies be held responsible for food addiction?

In any case, it is good to stay educated about what you put in your body – and who designed it.