The Science (And Profit) of Food Addiction

Hooked: Food, Free Will, and How the Food Giants Exploit Our Addictions, by Michael Moss

Food resonates so large in our memory because food looms so large in our lives. The act of eating touches everything we experience, everywhere we go, everyone we know, and everything we feel. As much as we are what we eat, we are what we remember, which explains why most everyone has a food memory that helps define who they are.

In Michael Moss’s Hooked, his next book exposing the more reprehensible behavior of the food industry following up the wildly successful (and still unread by me) Salt Sugar Fat, he tells a story that I imagine will stick with me for quite some time. It’s about a man, who, “after bariatric surgery, nearly ate himself to death with baklava.”

Now. On the one hand, we all have to go somehow, and I can think of worse ways than death by baklava. On the other, the feeling of uncomfortable fullness is, like its opposite of extreme hunger and emptiness, painful and often psychologically torturous. I would imagine especially excruciating after weight-loss surgery. So what mechanism in his brain allowed it to happen? Knowing full well what he’d been through, what his body had endured in an attempt to change, and what the effect of so much (albeit delicious) baklava would be?

All to say, our relationship with “addictive” foods — namely those packed with massive amounts of the reward-inducing ingredients salt, sugar, and fat — is a complicated one. According to Moss, “Some of our greatest insight into food and addiction comes from experts who started out working on drugs, and through this they’ve learned that addictions share some things. Not all of us are affected to the same degree. Our vulnerability can change over time and with our moods. The environment matters greatly.”

Made worse because someone in a position to profit from it realized it: “The processed food companies know that their products, like drugs, affect some of us more than others, and thus they turn out ten thousand new items each year.” Just in case you ever wondered why we have a million varieties of Oreos, with new ones constantly rolling out. Or, worse and more heave-inducing, complex varieties of sugary breakfast cereals, like Cotton Candy Cap’n Crunch, an example he uses repeatedly here and which I didn’t know existed and somewhat regret learning about.

I’m not anti-all processed foods, and in fact I think most people greatly misunderstand what exactly processing is and how much it’s benefited eating habits and food availability globally. So I did take issue a bit here with his casual use of the term “processed” — although in his defense, this is just generally the way it’s used and understood.

I know what people mean, but there are degrees of processing. Whole wheat pasta is a processed food, for example. Do we consider no-salt-added, peeled, canned tomatoes processed? I would. You can roll your eyes and say OBVIOUSLY it’s all the “chemical” ingredient-laden, junky, colorfully packaged stuff with a cartoon character selling it, but I think this concept can be quite confusing for people. Food companies and “natural” obsessed influencers have muddied the waters. From reading this you get the impression that the general public is just whiplashing back and forth as food company-funded studies churn out different findings and then react to avoid bad publicity or litigation. First it’s fat, then it’s sugar, then it’s fake sugar, back to fat but now trans fat, and so on.

When in reality, which Moss states very well here, for most people it’s all a lot more complicated than whatever the trendy demon of the moment is and there’s a lot of evolutionary biology and psychology at play too (and to be fair, trans fats are still pretty much just flat-out bad).

Anyway, what’s processed is a minor point I guess, but I always think there needs to be clearer delineation between highly processed foods enhanced with unreasonable amounts of salt and/or sugar and intended to be consumed in quantities far exceeding any level providing nutritional benefits (the aforementioned Cotton Candy Cap’n Crunch) and understanding what good things processing has done for the global food supply. It’s not realistic to get most people to only eat things that have been yanked from the ground or grow on trees, so we need to get a bit more realistic too about our relationship with processing. (I’ll get off my soapbox now.)

Moss looks at the biological and psychological responses that happen when we encounter specific ingredients that act on us powerfully in ways that our beyond our control, exactly like drugs, alcohol, and tobacco, with sugar getting the most attention here. I think everyone can in some way relate to the strange grip of an addictive food, most likely sugar in some form, even if you’ve never felt that you fall onto the spectrum of disordered eating. Although Moss points out, and I agree, that that spectrum is much broader than people tend to realize. Per him: “To obsess about food — even if the obsession is aimed at controlling what we eat — is just another spot on the spectrum of disordered eating.”

And it is very much a bummer to have solid evidence, in the form of court cases and extensive scientific studies, that the food companies know how these foods are acting on us and the potential for them to become addictive to many. They’re counting on it, in fact. And they specially engineer foods to better hook consumers. Unsurprising that employees have migrated from Big Tobacco to Big Food. Different product, same processes.

They even know that the biology of our own bodies thwarts us, no matter how we might try to break dependencies and control weight:

Perhaps the most telling aspect of body fat is that it never really disappears, even if you lose weight. Rather, the fat cells just shrivel up and lie in wait for the nose and the mouth and the gut and the brain to conspire to get us to eat more than we need, when the excess energy will flood those deflated fat cells with fuel stored in the form of fat.

Knowledge is power, scary as it is to learn more about the manipulations at play here. If you’ve read a lot in this area it won’t all be entirely new, nothing felt particularly groundbreaking or shocking to me here. Moss does give some helpful and quite reasonable advice, recommending fixing “just one of our bad habits at a time,” a biggie being stopping “drinking anything with calories.” He also gives some valuable, proven tips about slowing down when it comes to eating and preparing food, learning to cook (I can’t stress the importance of this one enough, from my own experience breaking disordered eating), and avoiding anything that too-quickly and strongly affects your pleasure and reward mechanism. He says it more eloquently than that, but that’s the gist of how we can help ourselves despite the biology, chemistry, and marketing power against us.

published March 2, 2021 by Random House

18 thoughts on “The Science (And Profit) of Food Addiction

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    1. Yes, exactly! I get what they mean about the really garbagey foods as “processed” but I just find that blanket term inaccurate and unhelpful, especially since we’re mired in decades of misinformation campaigns from the food industry around what’s nutritional and what’s not.

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  1. This sounds like a fascinating read, and one that would be really useful. I feel like I’ve finally got over my food issues in the last year and am eating healthier than I have done previously as an adult. Initially I stopped eating things like biscuits and cake, and I stopped drinking juice and I felt so ill for about a month. It was scary how it felt like withdrawal and it was so hard to resist the temptation to have something sweet to feel better. I then started looking at portion sizes and the type of food I was eating and have spent a lot of time learning about some of the things you mention that are in this book, it’s really confusing to get your head around – these companies are making it so hard for people to know what is an okay food and what is overly processed and not good. I’m going to try and get a copy of this book.

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    1. I know exactly what you’re describing. I really had issues with eating too much sugar for a long time, and now when I eat just a little I realize how far it goes. And you do feel pretty bad as you’re getting it out of your system, it really does mimic drug addiction in many ways! I’m glad you’ve been able to learn more about these things and make some changes, it IS really confusing and difficult and we’ve been so manipulated by food company marketing, sponsored studies, and misinformation that it can be really hard to know what’s correct. I think you’d find this one really helpful though!

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  2. I think the author is probably coming from a good place, and there’s no doubt about food companies’ eagerness to exploit people’s biology and desires for profit, but I wonder how much of food “addiction” is just feeling like certain foods are “forbidden” or have some moral failing attached to eating them. This rather newfound awareness of mine comes from reading anti-diet/ health at every size authors and dieticians like Christy Harrison and Caroline Dooner, among others. From my personal experience, I used to think that, if given free reign on Reese’s PB cups, I would eat them indefinitely. That my appetite was bottomless. When I allowed all foods I realized that I don’t crave them that strongly anymore. I’ve had a bag of them in my cabinet for over a month now and still have some left. Food for thought, ha ha!

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    1. The science that he uses to back up the addictive behavior claims is pretty solid, and the research has been ongoing for awhile. But I think it’s part of the one quote I included, that like more recognized addictions it affects people differently. And nothing with food is simple, there are always so many different biological and psychological factors at play. There’s just always a lot going on that affects it! Food for thought indeed!!

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    2. Great review, very well expressed. Also so funny, almost as if you were eavesdropping on a conversation we were having in the kitchen the other night about what “processed foods” means and how almost all food is to some extent processed so cannot just demonise all processed foods…we have also had the 20 year giving us a lecture about not eating meat, and later sits and eats chicken; and then follow up lecture of sugar is evil, then eats many of his dad’s birthday Belgian chocolates…

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      1. It really drives me crazy. I’m so tired of this demonization of “processed” foods, especially since so many people are completely clueless about what processing actually means and does. I wonder what it is with that age and getting on a high horse about certain foods, I think I did the same thing when I was that age…I did lol at eating the Belgian birthday chocolates, your poor husband!!

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    1. I agree! It kind of blows your mind once you start reading labels how much salt and sugar are in things, or even the fact that sugar is added to so many things that don’t require it in the slightest! I’m glad you were able to research and find what’s best for you, it makes such a difference!!

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  3. I liked your soapbox! I hadn’t thought about what ‘processed food’ means, but it seems to fit with a trend of confusing food descriptions – “natural” is one that always bothers me. It’s true, though, that there are some foods we couldn’t even eat without processing and almost everything we buy has been processed somehow. I think it’s worth being more precise with our language and describing the real problems people are getting at when they demonize processed food. Really great point!

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    1. The “natural” label drives me insane! It feels meaningless at this point. And that’s my thinking exactly, we need to focus more on what the actual problems are so that people can make better choices themselves, and the whole natural foods or “whole” foods instead of processed or whatever the in categorization of the moment is only makes it more complicated and confusing! I’m glad my soapbox rant about this made sense 😂

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