The Unspoken Addiction Epidemic

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One thing about the culture of the United States that the rest of the world seems to grapple with is the way we consume our food. According to the CSC, approximately 60% of food consumed by Americans is processed. When you look at our day to day lives, focus on work, commuting time, it makes sense that there is a market for what we eat to be packaged and ready to go. Many are aware of the lack of nutritional value in these ultra-processed foods, yet when we want to stop eating them, we often find that we can’t, some even to the point where they feel sick or their health becomes at risk. These extremities have caused researchers to wonder if overindulging in processed foods is simply a matter of self control, or if they could actually be classified as an addictive substance. 

It is a difficult question because, unlike other substances we consider addictive, there is no singular factor that causes cravings or binge eating, but rather a combination that food scientists have developed for companies to make you keep eating, and, therefore, keep buying their products. The processed food market is, after all, a market. Still, studies have been able to pinpoint a few root causes. 

Most processed foods have high percentages of both fat and carbohydrates at a relatively equal ratio, unlike anything that is found in natural foods. This dose of nutrients activates the brain’s reward system in a way that can be compared to nicotine or cocaine. Another key element is sugar. While it is a household substance, its effects are not to be underestimated. Its familiarity is because it has become an ingredient in nearly all food you buy from the grocery store. In tests done on rats, the rats choose sugar over cocaine and self-administered electric shocks to receive more. This is because the faster a substance activates your brain, the more addictive it is. The neurological signals or taste buds send mean that sugar, as well as salt, are some of the fastest. For reference, cigarette smoke takes around ten seconds, while sugar and salt take only eight-tenths of one. 

But it does not stop at the ingredients. While you might not even consciously notice it, every part of your eating experience has been specifically designed. Take potato chips, for example. According to Michael Moss, investigative reporter for the New York Times, “They discovered that the more crunchy [sound] potato chips have, the more we will eat.” 

The effects can be seen in the health of our nation. In the United States today, 42.4% of adults are obese. The government has acknowledged this issue with programs such Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move or talk of taxing higher foods, but this action ultimately puts the responsibility on the consumers, focusing on dieting, exercise, and choosing to buy healthier instead of holding manufacturers accountable for making unhealthy food chemically and psychologically irresistible. 

Europe, on the other hand, takes a more cautionary approach that prioritizes citizens over the industry. In fact, many ingredients that are used freely in the United States are regulated or completely banned overseas. Even our produce is exposed to more chemicals used in farming that have been suggested to have detrimental effects on health. 

There is also the reality that processed food is more accessible. Since it is non-perishable, it is available to be ordered in bulk at a cheaper price. Agriculture is also more expensive as it is a job that is becoming increasingly unpopular as well as the unpredictability of harvesting seasons, which drive up the price of natural food. The term “food desert” has been coined to describe geographical regions in the United States where there is limited access to healthy, affordable food, disproportionately affecting rural, impoverished, and minority communities. As a result, many Americans find it difficult to choose to eat healthy, even if they want to.