Research links processed foods and food addiction

A new study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, has provided reasoning behind the longtime association between processed foods and addictive tendencies related to obesity. While Americans are slowly shying away from processed foods, much due to the the farm-to-table movement encouraged by culinary arts programs and chefs nationwide, the obesity epidemic in the U.S. still proves to be a general health concern. The research suggests that processed foods are more potent than the ingredients would be in their natural state and therefore have more addictive properties.

Researchers conducted two separate studies in which the first had 120 participants and the latter had 384 participants. In the first study, participants completed the Yale Food Addiction Scale and then compared 35 foods based on how addictive they are. For example, the participants would be given the choice between pizza and ice cream and have to choose which is more addictive. In the second study, the same 35 foods were used to identify what attributes made foods more addictive.

The top five most addictive foods in descending order were pizza, chocolate, chips, cookies and ice cream. Forbes notes that all of these foods are both high in fat and carbs, and that foods with this nutritional makeup are not found in nature. Therefore, foods that have this combination likely trigger the brain due to their potency. In other words, highly processed foods that are packed with fat and carbs trigger cravings which encourage addictive and unhealthy choices.

In the published study, authors note, “Addictive substances are rarely in their natural state, but have been altered or processed in a manner that increases their abuse potential. For example, grapes are processed into wine and poppies are refined into opium. A similar process may be occurring within our food supply. There are naturally occurring foods that contain sugar (e.g., fruits) or foods that naturally contain fat (e.g., nuts). Notably, sugar (or refined carbohydrates) and fat rarely occur in the same food naturally, but many palatable foods have been processed to have artificially elevated quantities of both (e.g. cake, pizza, chocolate).”

The team concluded that future studies will need to further evaluate the exact nature of food addiction and investigate addictive behaviors such as increased tolerance and withdrawal. For Americans, this research strengthens the argument against eating processed foods and adopting a farm-to-table philosophy in the kitchen.

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