Take a naturally-occurring mildly addictive substance (there are many), then refine and redesign it so it’s more addictive – maybe much more addictive. There are lots of ways to do this. You can combine it with other substances that enhance its addictive properties, you can modify the vehicle so that it’s easier to ingest or can be ingested via a route that reaches the brain more rapidly (faster “rise time”), you can increase its availability so that users can dose themselves readily, and you can standardize the concentration of the substance so that users can dose themselves reliably. You can advertize and display it prominently on shelves so that it is salient in the environment. You can make it available to young people so that dependence can be established in the susceptible developing brain.
Tobacco’s like that. The tobacco that native Americans put in their peace pipes was probably somewhat addictive, but the tobacco in cigarettes is exponentially more so. Why? It’s combined with flavorants that make it more palatable. It’s flue-cured and modified in other ways to make it easier to inhale, so that nicotine, the main psychoactive ingredient in tobacco, reaches the brain in just a few seconds. The nicotine content is manipulated to produce a consistent, fairly strong product. The invention of the Bonsack cigarette-rolling machine in the 19thcentury allowed the tobacco industry to start making its product much more widely available and affordable.
Cocaine is like that, too. Cocaine as absorbed from chewing or drinking tea brewed from coca leaves acts as a mild stimulant but is only questionably addictive. Purify that cocaine and cook it up as crack, and you have a substance that produces highly euphoric and psychoactive effects, a product that poses serious threats to the individual user and to society.
And a lot of the food we eat is like that.
Yes, food manufacturers have taken a page from the tobacco industry’s playbook and devoted considerable research to developing combinations of salt, sugar, and fat that maximize palatability. “Once a preference is acquired, most people do not change it, but simply obey it,” wrote a top Frito-Lay scientist in a 1979 internal memorandum. For a more extended account of these practices, read David Kessler’s excellent description in his book entitled The End of Overeating, which I reviewed in an earlier post. These products have never been seen in nature, nor do you have to forage for them; accessibility is as easy as tearing open a bag or replying “yes” to the question, “Supersize those fries?”
Recent calls to reduce the salt content of processed foods have produced an outcry from the manufacturers of salt and of products made with salt. They claim it’s needed as a preservative and for a variety of other culinary reasons. They acknowledge that low-salt foods require more expensive (read better quality!) ingredients to taste good. They fear that consumers will abandon them if they tamper with tried and true formulas.
All these things are true. But in emphasizing the forces to which they must passively submit, the food manufacturers soft-pedal their own active efforts to create products that many people will be unable to resist. And here, the food manufactures have taken another page from Big Tobacco’s playbook. It’s called blame the victim. Point to their customers’ strong appetites for their products. Stress the need for personal responsibility and restraint to curb consumption.
Although some people are clearly more susceptible to addiction than others, remember that for most of human history we lived in an environment where food was scarce and required work to obtain, an environment in which most of the products on supermarket shelves didn’t even exist. (If you doubt this, read the list of ingredients on virtually any package you pick up. What would your grandmother make of a recipe that called for lactose, soy lecithin, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, and artificial flavor – all listed among the ingredients in Snickers, the most popular candy bar of all time?) Remember, food tastes good for a reason. We are meant to eat, and to eat heartily. But what happens when we are confronted with food engineered to interact with our brain chemistry in such a way as to be irresistible to a large portion of the population?
Now let’s talk about the “obesity epidemic.” Why are we suddenly living in a culture where, like the children in Lake Wobegon, “all the people are above average?” No one answer can fully explain this phenomenon. Although it’s sometimes said that our genes haven’t changed, in fact they have, at least collectively, in the ethnic composition of our population. The decline in smoking, with quitters tending to gain weight, has probably made a modest contribution. People are living longer, leading to an older population, and weight gain with age is typical if not normal.
All these factors undoubtedly play a role. But I can’t help wondering if changes in the food we buy in grocery stores or eat in restaurants aren’t the most important factor. I don’t know the answer to this question, but perhaps it’s time to start a national conversation about the addictiveness of food similar to the one that finally led to the recognition that tobacco use was not simply a “pleasant adult custom” that could be taken up and put down at will.
One difference between food and tobacco: We don’t need the latter to live but we do need the former. So quitting eating is not an option. We can, however, avoid highly processed products designed to create intense craving without ever fully satisfying it.
Cynthia S. Pomerleau, Ph.D., is currently research professor emerita in the University of Michigan Department of Psychiatry. From 1985 to 2009 she served as director of the Nicotine Research Laboratory, where much of her research focused on the impact of smoking on women. She is the author of more than a hundred articles and book chapters on smoking and a contributor to the 2001 Surgeon General’s Report on Women and Smoking.