Hyperpalatable Foods: Science or Science Fiction? Part 3

Heart Shaped Potato Chip

Childhood obesity, adult obesity, food addiction, processed food, chemicals, and corporations… all these things and more are inextricably entwined, and their relationship gives rise to many questions. Like, are they putting stuff in food to make it addictive, on purpose? What is the probability level of that happening?

There used to be a widespread urban legend regarding salt peter that claimed it was added to the food in all male institutions, including the United States Army, as a way to curb libido.

Some still maintain that food is tampered with in prisons, juvenile detention centers, and the military. The page quoted above, from the website WiseGeek, includes a fascinating array of comments from people speaking with firsthand knowledge, who can either prove or disprove it. And of course there are other kinds of mass tampering, such as fluoridated drinking water, that are accepted and seen as benign by most of the population.

So, what about the theory that manufacturers deliberately lace our food with addictive substances, aiming to get rich by creating a nation of fast-food junkies? It’s easy to scoff at such a Dr. Evil-ish idea, which is as grandiose as the one proposed by some not-very-bright ’60s radicals: dumping LSD in a city’s water supply. But is it really so crazy to harbor a suspicion that corporations want to get us hooked?

Comfort food science is the technology behind the creation of hyperpalatable, hedonic, more-ish foods. Its entire philosophy is summed up by the advertising slogan of a well-known brand of potato chips: “Bet you can’t eat just one.” In Overweight: What Kids Say, Dr. Robert A. Pretlow related his amazement at the package of assorted chips he was given during an airplane flight. Sampling a few, he found that their intense flavor made it very difficult to close up the package and save the remaining chips to photograph later, for the book. He wrote,

The Modern Marvels TV documentary, “Snack Food Tech,” describes how a corn chip manufacturer applies the flavoring as a thin layer to only one side of the chip: “The goal is to have a flavor that peaks quickly in the mouth and quickly fades, forcing the consumer to eat more and more” [Snack Food Tech, 2007].

Overweight: What Kids Say also contains selections from the discussions among children and teens at the Weigh2Rock website. “Ugh! I ate an entire bag of chips today!” says one, and another adds, “I just can’t stop stuffing my face with chips.” There are many more similar confessions. In other words, it seems that Dr. Evil’s plan for world domination through addiction is a success.

The chemical we know as salt is a major additive in chips and hundreds of other processed foods. Aside from whatever other mission it may fulfill when added to a carton of fries or a dipping sauce, its prevalence in fast food serves a very important purpose. Eating salty food creates thirst, so a person feels the need to drink gigantic amounts of soda pop, milkshakes, etc. This adds up to mega-calories and, of course, overweight consumers.

Dr. David Kessler’s book, The End of Overeating, is discussed in Slide 44 of Dr. Pretlow’s audio-visual work, “Why Are Children Overweight?” which was presented to the Royal College of Physicians in London. Also, in Overweight What Kids Say, Dr. Pretlow discusses Dr. Kessler’s idea that foods, these days, are constructed to be more pleasurable, hedonic, and hyperpalatable. It seems very clear that the food industry fully intends to create irresistible foods, with the goal of causing addiction. Dr. Pretlow adds,

Needless to say, food companies would love to get kids hooked on their products, and food companies appear to have developed comfort food to this end.

Jill Tieman is connected with the Weston A. Price Foundation. In the 1920s, Dr. Price traveled to many remote places to study indigenous populations who all had a common characteristic: excellent general health, including dental health. He concluded that humans can only thrive by eating “nutrient-dense whole foods that are traditionally prepared.”

Tieman’s article, “Your Brain on Fake Food,” looks at the Yale study, with its findings of cross-sensitization between sugar addiction and narcotics addiction in some subjects. Also, it looks as if there might be a genetic reason why some people are more prone to becoming dangerously dependent on sugar and/or alcohol and/or narcotics. Whether or not it can be proven to have a genetic basis, addiction is still addiction, and needs to be treated as such. Or exploited as such, as food corporation are well aware. Tieman says,

Of course they know about the addictive nature of chemically enhanced and sugary foods! They have known it for years. Each year they introduce more additives to the food supply (condoned by the FDA). This is reminiscent of the tobacco companies covering up the facts of the addictive chemicals in tobacco… The addictive nature of these chemicals reach out to include not only alcohol and substance abusers, but they insidiously pull in the average person who eats commercially prepared foods.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “What is Salt Peter?,” Wise Geek
Source: “Your Brain on Fake Food,” Real Food Forager, 04/07/11
Image by mollypop, used under its Creative Commons license.

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Profiles: Kids Struggling with Weight

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The Book

OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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