Am I a Potato Chip Addict or a Victim of Food Science?
Coping is family-sized bag of chips, crystal dustings of salt adhering to my fingers with vinegar. The rush of pleasure comes not just from the trusty crunch and hedonic flavors but also the anticipation of that final finger lick — a pure hit of salt, fat, and sugar. When the bag is empty, I raise it to the skies, raining atoms of salt into my mouth that mingle with feelings of satisfaction, guilt, and regret.
Growing up in India, while my friends bought cigarettes from roadside stands, I bought masala chips. I’d smuggle five or 10 questionably oily, transparent bags home in my bookbag. Pushing aside angry tears over bullying and exams, I’d secretly eat my way through each bag in one “homework” sitting. I don’t remember much about the periodic table of elements, but I do remember the look of my fingertips caked with bright red powder and how fresh, ice-cold watermelon juice tasted going down my gullet after several bags of those firecracker crisps.
In college, my trash can overflowed not with beer cans but with yellow bags of Baked Lays. At work, I upgraded to family-size bags of various chip brands, stacking them on my desk as a barrier between myself and whatever cruel criticism or unwanted physical touching came my way. In attempts to lose weight and regain self-control, I started to count my calories. Some days, I managed to work a standard serving size of chips into my day by pre-calculating every single bite and negotiating what I was willing to give up (anything) for a mere 13 chips. Most days, I went overbudget and, then, overboard. Chips had gone from being a source of pleasure and comfort to a source of guilt, stress, and even self-loathing.
“You’re an addict,” my brain would whisper as my fingers mechanically reached for just one more. “It’s not your fault,” my brain would soothe.
I’d start by portioning chips out to prove that I had self-control. Halfway through a serving, I was a goner. I’d lunge for more, forcing myself to eat until I felt physically ill in the hopes that the experience would be enough of a turn-off to never do it again. (That did not work.) I blamed myself, simultaneously embracing and hating my weakness.
No matter how much I tried to control my potato chip consumption, I never actually stopped buying chips. I would vow not to and invariably my feet would carry me to the snack aisle, like a club I wasn’t supposed to be at but snuck into anyway. Again, I blamed my lack of self-control. What I never thought to blame were the chips themselves.
Processed food companies have entire departments and billions of dollars dedicated to orosensation — how each of the human senses is stimulated by the act of eating. In Michael Moss’ bestselling book, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, he unveils that food scientists spend their lives testing and creating the most alluring and addictive foods possible, all in an effort to drive sales. These scientists study the principles of “food pleasure,” which is a combination of sensory factors and caloric stimulation. Every manufactured food and beverage product is tested among consumer groups for years until it achieves what is known as the ultimate “bliss point,” which is the ideal ratio of sugar to fat to salt that evokes feelings of carnal pleasure. This bliss point is what keeps consumers coming back for more.
In a way, the bliss point of a product like potato chips can be described as the point that sparks addiction-like tendencies in consumers. According to Moss’ research, “Narcotics and food — especially food that is high in salt, sugar, and fat — act much alike. Once ingested, they race along the same pathways, using the same neurological circuitry to reach the brain’s pleasure zones, those areas that reward us with enjoyable feelings for doing the right thing by our bodies.”
Kelly Abramson, a registered dietician and nutritionist of Npower You, noted that sugar or salt or fat on their own are not addictive. Just imagine shoveling spoonfuls of salt or even sugar in your mouth — certainly not as pleasant as a bag of chips. What really gets us is the right combination of salt to sugar and fat, accompanied by other sensory experiences like texture and temperature. This combination is always associated with calorically dense, albeit high-pleasure inducing foods.
“[There’s] research to support if we believe a food is bad for us — if we believe a food is higher in calories — there is a stronger biological drive to eat it,” Abramson explained. “When we do eat it, or think about it, the drive to eat it gets stronger because of the way our pleasure senses work in our brain. The hedonic index of the food actually increases when we don’t feel like we can have it.”
While sugar, salt, and fat all stimulate dopamine in the brain to release a rewarding response when consumed, every person’s taste proclivities differ. Jennifer Franck, the assistant chief at the Department of Nutritional Arts at The Center for Discovery, emphasized that emotional attachments help to decide why we are drawn more toward some foods over others.
“Why you choose a particular food usually harks back to some kind of emotional attachment you have first as a kid. It might be that your parents were really restrictive with this one food and you saw it as a little sneak or a treat,” Franck said. (My mind jumped back to when I once opened a bag of masala chips in front of my mother and the immediate confiscation of the same.) The closer an emotional relationship is to a particular processed food, the harder it is to break as both the brain and the body view it as hyper-palatable, experiencing a big sensory explosion each time the food is consumed.
The closer an emotional relationship is to a particular processed food, the harder it is to break as both the brain and the body view it as hyper-palatable, experiencing a big sensory explosion each time the food is consumed.
“There are different types of food addictions,” Franck explained. “Food addiction is how it’s classified because there is that dopamine response, similar to what we see from a drug addiction. … There’s an addictive component and you have a neurological response that is an addictive response to that food.”
Some experts argue against referring to these behaviors toward certain foods as “addiction” for several reasons. Unlike drugs or other addictive substances, humans can’t go cold-turkey with food. We need it to survive and our bodies are hardwired to seek out the most high-calorie foods as a basic means of survival. And while studies do show spikes of pleasurable brain activity when subjects are exposed to sugar, salt, and fat, the studies don’t often account for the circumstances of deprivation around the case.
“[These studies] don’t take into account the full experience of being human, mental health, the ability of people to live a long-term life,” said Abramson, who considers studies of food addiction to be inconclusive and misleading. To refer to an ardent craving for a particular food as an addiction makes it seem like a hopeless case that cannot be undone without complete avoidance. But, luckily for us, that isn’t the case.
According to Abramson, our society has absorbed strong messaging about health and wellness to the point where the most pleasurable of foods have been deemed bad or dangerous. “We’re a nation that knows more about food and the components of food, but I don’t think it’s making us physically or mentally healthier,” she said. “We’re so obsessed with what’s in our food and whether it’s going to kill us or cure us; it takes away enjoyment and drives us to crave the food more because we’re never really allowing ourselves to have the full enjoyment and experience of it.” This deprivation mentality occurs even when we do allow ourselves to eat the particular food because we’re policing how much of it we eat or feeling guilty for the act of consumption.
‘We’re so obsessed with what’s in our food and whether it’s going to kill us or cure us; it takes away enjoyment and drives us to crave the food more because we’re never really allowing ourselves to have the full enjoyment and experience of it.’
During the 2020 lockdown, I stopped counting calories for the first time in three years. Rather than following a strict meal plan or monitoring what I ate, I implemented just one single rule: Eat when hungry, stop when full. To my surprise — and delight — it now takes me up to several days to finish a big bag of chips.