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How Junk Food Uses Science Against You

The sharp increase in obesity rates among Americans over the past 20 years ranks as one of the most pressing health crises facing our nation. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a third of adults in the U.S. meet the clinical criteria for obesity. Even more troubling, it is estimated that 17 percent of all U.S. children are considered obese, a spike that has inspired First Lady Michelle Obama to launch the “Let’s Move” initiative targeting childhood obesity.[1]

The soaring rate of obesity in the U.S. raises many questions, perhaps most obvious of all: Why are so many Americans overeating? A recent article in the New York Times shed light on the matter, exploring the science behind why some processed foods taste so good and cause such addictive habits.

The running joke of the food industry is that if you want to improve the taste of a processed food, you simply have to add sugar.[2] It is little secret that many of the nation’s most popular snack foods have high levels of sugar and sodium. Considering sugar and salt trigger a reward response in our brains and a release of endorphins that make us feel good, one can see how consumers can become easily addicted to products purposely designed to cause this type of reaction.[3]

But the pleasure we derive from a food goes far beyond its sugar and sodium levels. The Times article described the work performed by many food company engineers, who strive to craft the most delectable and irresistible foods possible. The process is known as “product optimization.” Food engineers use insights drawn from psychology and neuroscience to concoct formulas for foods that taste amazing and produce cravings.[4] They tinker with the taste, texture, smell, color, and countless other attributes of a particular product, running formulas through a computer program that identifies the features of a product that will prove most desirable to consumers. This helps food companies narrow down the near infinite number of combinations possible when developing a new recipe and helps them settle on the precise equation that will hook consumers.[5]

Of course, ultimately each of us has the freedom and ability to make healthy choices. But given the ability of the food industry to develop products specifically designed to make us not want to stop snacking, it is little wonder so many Americans have seen their waistlines expand.



[1]  ”Overweight and Obesity.” CDC.gov A-Z Index. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 21 Dec 2012. Web. 21 Feb 2013.

[2] Moss, Michael. “The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food.” The New York Times Online 20 Feb 2013. 20 Feb 2013.

[3] Witherly, Steven Anthony. Why Humans Like Junk Food. iUniverse, 2007.

[4] Witherly.

[5] Moss.

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