Certain foods are irresistible for almost any human being: It’s difficult to stop eating them, even when we’re full. But not all foods are equally addictive, obviously. Some types of food contain key ingredients that appear to be particularly related to food addiction.
Just a few years ago, a team from the University of Michigan conducted a study to discover the most addictive foods. The researchers used a sample of 120 undergraduate students and made them complete the Yale Food Addiction Scale. This scale was designed to assess signs and quantify symptoms of addictive-like eating behavior. Then, the researchers further investigated which food attributes (e.g. fat grams) were related to addictive-like eating behavior by surveying 384 additional participants.
In the first part of the study, participants firstly completed the Yale Food Addiction Scale. Then, they were presented with food picture pairings and asked to indicate which foods, out of 35 foods varying in nutritional composition, they were most likely to experience problems with (e.g. being unable to quit a food). In the second part of the study, participants were asked to rate each of the 35 foods on a 7-point Likert scale ranging from 7 = “extremely problematic” to 1= “not problematic at all.”
The results of the study are not surprising: Highly processed foods with a high fat content or refined carbohydrates (like white flour and sugar) were found to be linked to food addiction. What’s interesting is that these highly addictive foods share some characteristics with drugs of abuse (e.g. high dose, rapid rate of absorption) as they are able to activate brain-reward neurocircuits in a similar way as cocaine or opioids do.
So here are the top 10 most addictive foods:
5. Ice Cream
6. French Fries
The top ten foods were followed by bacon, fried chicken, rolls, buttered popcorn, cereals, gummies, steak, and muffins. Reading the 35-item list from the bottom to the top, the least addictive foods were found to be cucumbers, carrots, beans, apples, brown rice, broccoli, bananas, salmon, corn (with no butter or salt), strawberries, granola bar, water, plain crackers, pretzels, chicken breast, eggs, and nuts.
Why can’t we get enough?
Another study conducted in 2019 by the University of Kansas investigated the reason why we can’t get enough of some foods. The study focused on the so-called hyper-palatability of processed foods, which occurs when the combination of key ingredients creates an artificially enhanced tastiness that is greater than what any other ingredient would produce alone. The study identified three groups of specific ingredients that affect the hyper-palatability of foods:
- Fat plus sodium, with over 25% of kcal from fat and at least 0.30% sodium per gram per serving.
- Fat plus simple sugars, with over 20% kcal from fat and more than 20% kcal from simple sugars.
- Carbohydrates plus sodium, with over 40% kcal from carbohydrates and at least 0.20% sodium per gram per serving.
Palatable highly addictive foods are linked to obesity and overconsumption. It is not a mystery that the food industry has created food formulas based on the combination of fat, sugar, sodium, and carbohydrates to maximize palatability and – most of all – increase consumption.
Bad news for US consumers? The study also estimated that about two-thirds of widely consumed foods in the US fall into one of these categories.Doritos are an archetype of addictive processed food largely consumed in the US. In an article published by The New York Times a few years ago, food scientist Steven A. Witherly explains what makes Doritos so irresistible. First of all, Doritos’ recipe balances powerful tastes (like garlic flavor) in a way that no single flavor overpowers the others. This trick avoids the so-called “sensory specific satiety,” which is the feeling of satiety caused by a dominant flavor. Additionally, Doritos’ recipe includes two acids that get the saliva flowing and triggers the impulse to eat. Finally, the food scientist pointed out that half of Doritos’ calories come from fat. This ratio makes the chips melt in your mouth… The interesting fact is that the brain is tricked into thinking that calories have vanished as well. This process – which is called “vanishing caloric density” – happens with several other foods, like cotton candy.