To some of us equating the dangers of Oreos and crack cocaine seems ridiculous. To Moss it is self-evident. The book is a follow-up to his bestseller Salt, Sugar, Fat. He proclaims that “food, in some ways can be even more addictive than alcohol, cigarettes and drugs.” he confesses that in the previous book he wasn’t ready to call out processed food as addictive. Interesting, as its subtitle was How the Food Giants Hooked Us. In that book he uses the terms ‘addict’ and ‘addiction’ more than twenty times. In Hooked he really means it. Regardless of our view on food addiction, he is a gifted writer and dogged researcher. The Sunday morning after the NY Times quoted a colleague, Moss was on his doorstep ready to interview him. He seeks out researchers from across a topic’s spectrum.
Hooked starts out by redefining addiction. It is “a repetitive behavior that some people find it difficult to quit.” That makes me a reading addict and a sports addict! Ask my wife! Redefining a term to meet one’s needs is a neat trick if the original definition doesn’t quite suit. Researchers at Yale have developed a food addiction scale. The scale is an essential tool in food-addiction research. Others studying the psychology of eating are skeptical (1). Does it trivialize drug addictions? In my mind it does. I may be wrong. I polled students in a graduate food-science course I taught. To my dismay, a majority of them agreed that an Oreo was more addictive than crack cocaine. I suspect everyone in the class had eaten at least one Oreo. I don’t think any of them was a crack-cocaine user.
I devoted a chapter in my book, In Defense of Processed Food, to food addiction. When researching that book, I concluded that people were not addicted to food. There was much stronger evidence in my mind for an eating addiction. Hooked mentions the possibility of an eating addiction, but it sticks to a food addiction. Evidence for addictions include changes in brain scans and speed of signals to the brain. The book bemoans the ready availability of marketing signals that trigger addictive responses. Early chapters speed through a theory of food addiction with limited analysis. One drawback encountered is that food addiction doesn’t have withdrawal symptoms. Not to worry! The book states that withdrawal is no longer a feature of the addiction experience.
Moss is very good at exposing us to a rapid-fire litany of facts and figures. He creates extensive daisy chains that link one relationship to another to another. At one junction I counted up sixteen concepts linked together. He starts with “What goes into our long-term storage as permanent recall . . .” It ends up at “When our behavior gets repetitive, this pair [sugar and fat] is the hardest to quit.” They converge into a convincing story with each link flowing into the next one. He connects the dots, but is each dot valid? Probability becomes a problem. If each link is 90% accurate, the probability of the chain is 0.18 or much lower than chance. Even at 95% for each link, the probability becomes 0.44, still lower than chance. It looks good when we read it real fast, but does it make sense?
Hooked delves into the addictive nature of sugar plus fat. In the book only processed foods are addictive foods. It ignores the possible addictive nature of mama’s home-made brownies. Addictive cues lead to weight gain which ends up in obesity. It all goes back to all the chemicals added to food. Pumpkin spice, for example, involves “the deployment of as many as eighty elements.” Does Moss means eighty chemical compounds here? The culprits include cyclotenes, lactones, sulfurol, and pyrazines. He fails to mention that these molecules are also components of Real Foods.
Moss ignores the chemical complexity of fruits and vegetables. For example, almost 600 chemical compounds make up the aroma of fresh mango varieties (2). These chemicals include terpenoids, ketones, lactones, and cycloalkanes. Haven’t we gone far enough in using chemical names to scare consumers away from processed foods? Everything we put into our mouths is chemical. If we take away all the chemicals in food, we have a vacuum. Even the oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon-dioxide in the air are chemicals.
Processed foods provide convenience and thus bypass evolutionary drives. It is these drives that served our ancestors well that do us in. Our guide Ardi, “a female who lived 4.4 million years ago,” was able to walk upright. This accomplishment led to perceiving aromas through her nose and in the back of her throat. Sensory scientists call this orthonasal and retronasal olfaction. Moss provides an excellent perspective on how Ardi perceived flavor. Ardi abandoned the earthy odors of the ground to perceive a wide range of tastes and aromas in nature’s bounty. We use the same talents to enjoy the pleasures of chocolate melting in our mouths. Aroma perception also helps us as we sniff swirling wine in a glass to capture its essence. The industry reels us in with flavors and sweeteners.
Food scientists working in food companies know how the consumer’s brain works and how to exploit it. The book traces the many forms of Oreos from double stuffed to minis. Companies integrate the experience. Cookie packages end up in our shopping carts and product into our waiting mouths when we get them home. Lawsuits are the only effective weapon against the hubris of Big Food.. The lawsuit strategy is slow but effective. It worked on smoking and drunk driving.
Hooked introduces the public to a more serious problem than many of us want to believe. Processed food is an inexpensive way to feed an addiction. Thus, it lurks below the radar. We joke about the power of an Oreo cookie or being chocoholics. Are we ready to commit ourselves to a 12-step program or therapy? Addiction is nothing to joke about. It is a mental illness. Moss brings the topic together in an easy-to-read format. The problems he describes are more descriptive of disordered eating than true addiction. Despite his diatribe against processed food, he delivers a serious but palatable message. Americans do have a problem with food. Is it a true addiction? Is it a series of eating disorders? Is it disordered eating?
Moss doesn’t get food addiction quite right to my satisfaction. There are social science researchers who study this topic in depth. In the rest of this month I will describe their findings, the case they make, and my analysis of food addiction.
Next week: Processed food addiction—what the Science says
(1) Penzenstadler, L., C. Soares, L. Karila, and Y. Khazaal, 2019. Systematic review of food addiction as measured with the Yale food addiction scale: Implications for the food addiction construct. Current Neuropharmacology 17(6):526-538. https://pubmed.ncbi.nim.nih.gov/30406740/
(2) Singh, Z., R.K. Singh, V.A. Sane, and P. Nath, 2013. Mango—postharvest biology and technology. Critical Reviews in Plant Sciences 32:217-236. DOI 10.1080/07352689.2012.746699
I am a member of the Board of Scientific and Policy Advisors of the American Council on Science and Health. I retired as a Professor of Food Science from the University of Georgia in 2013. I have become dismayed at the characterization of processed food as being unhealthy, addictive and worse. Not all processed foods are junk and not all junk foods are processed. What constitutes a processed food is poorly understood. My goal for this blog is to provide a more balanced perspective on the subject. Robert L. Shewfelt
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