Why sugar, cheese and fast food are more addictive than heroin

Will Kreznick

Cookies could be even more addictive than heroin, a new book reveals.  Studies over the years have revealed the shocking power of sweetness. In one 1980 experiment, human subjects were asked to push a button as soon as they sensed a hit of sugar placed upon their tongues. Their reactions […]

Cookies could be even more addictive than heroin, a new book reveals. 

Studies over the years have revealed the shocking power of sweetness. In one 1980 experiment, human subjects were asked to push a button as soon as they sensed a hit of sugar placed upon their tongues. Their reactions were almost instantaneous — a fraction of a second after the sugar landed on their tongues, they sensed it. 

“The smoke from cigarettes takes ten seconds to stir the brain, but a touch of sugar on the tongue will do so in a little more than half a second,” Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Michael Moss writes in his new book “Hooked: Food, Free Will, and How the Food Giants Exploit Our Addictions” (Random House), out Tuesday. “That’s nearly twenty times faster than cigarettes. 

“Not only can food be as addictive as cigarettes, alcohol, and some drugs,” he said. “But in some way even more so.” 

And food manufacturers take advantage of our base instincts and biology to get us hooked on their products, Moss told The Post. 

While cigarettes, drugs and hard booze rely on specific chemicals such as nicotine, morphine and ethanol to affect the brain and get us hooked, processed foods use simpler substances to make us crave them: the unholy trinity of salt, sugar, and fat. These tasty temptations cue our brain to release the pleasure hormone dopamine, enticing us to come back for more. 

“When we see, smell, or merely think about chocolate cake, it’s the dopamine that makes us want a slice — as much as the sugar and butter in the cake,” Moss writes. “This is a tool for our survival. We need to eat in order to live, and dopamine is there to motivate us to eat.” 

Cigarette companies and fast food chains use our biology to hook us into addiction.
Cigarette companies and food manufacturers use the same tricks to keep us coming back for more.
Getty Images

Manufacturers also use stealth methods to manipulate our love of fat, sugar, and salt. Maltodextrin, a nearly undetectable starch derivative, is used to thicken salad dressing or make beers taste richer, for example. This substance doesn’t taste sweet to most people, but it has the same chemical structure, the same number of calories, and the same potential to make us overeat as sugar. 

“This,” Moss writes, “makes it highly useful to food manufacturers.” 

Processed foods send signals to the brain when they hit our tongues — and as they’re digested, they also get into our bloodstream, just like drugs and alcohol. 

“Glucose can start arriving in the blood within ten minutes of eating something, which is as fast as snorted cocaine,” Moss writes. “Products that are highly refined will send our blood sugar soaring the fastest, and the faster it soars, the faster it hits the reward system in the brain.” 

Furthermore, new research suggests that the faster a food hits our bloodstream and raises our blood sugar, the more our blood sugar crashes afterwards. That drop, Moss writes, “prods the brain into making more dopamine that calls upon us to look for more food.” 

The fact that processed foods are far easier and less expensive to score than cigarettes or drugs also makes us lust for them, even if the high is less intense. 

“Hot Pockets are cheap, they’re legal, you can get them everywhere,” Moss said. 

"Hooked: Food, Free Will, and How the Food Giants Exploit Our Addictions"

Given the addictive nature of processed foods, it’s unsurprising that cigarette giant Philip Morris purchased Kraft in 1988 and served as the food conglomerate’s parent company in some form for nearly two decades. 

“They schooled the Kraft people on some of their marketing strategies. Philip Morris was genius at marketing cigarettes and it shifted some of that genius to its food managers, helping them find ways to hit those emotional buttons that cause us to eat when we’re not hungry, that drive us toward those compulsive things,” Moss said. 

Cigarettes and processed foods are similar in the “way they go after our emotions and our instincts and our vulnerabilities.” 

Moss recalled meeting Steve Parrish, who served as the general counsel for Philip Morris for years. While Parrish was able to control his smoking habit, he refused to touch the processed foods made by the company, because they were so addictive. 

“He could take a cigarette out during a meeting and then put his pack away for the rest of the day, and never smoke again,” Moss said. 

“But he told me he couldn’t open a bag of Oreos for fear of eating the whole bag.”

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