'Food Cravings- Innate or Ingrained?'

15 December 2021 | Opinion | By Nysa Adurkar, Mumbai

Food cravings might actually be engineered by industries to maximise consumption image credit- shutterstock image credit- shutterstock

That sudden urge to reach for a packet of chips or a candy bar is all too familiar for most. Food cravings, or an inexplicable urge to consume a certain food, have long been blamed for unhealthy eating habits and underlying diseases like obesity. However, in actuality, the global food industries take advantage of these strong cravings, modifying their products to contain perfect proportions of fats and sugar to create addictive treats that are guaranteed to leave consumers yearning for more.

The reasons behind food cravings have long been debated, with past research emphasizing deficiencies in one’s diet. From our bodies craving chocolate to compensate for a lack in magnesium, this theory, however, fails to explain why fruits and vegetables, which are nutritionally richer, are rarely craved. Instead, even those with high sodium levels are unable to satisfy their cravings of high-salt snacks.

The simple reason behind these seemingly ‘unhealthy’ choices is the human body’s tendency to prefer high energy or high calorie food. This developed as an evolutionary instinct, preparing the body for possible periods of starvation in the future. Research conducted by professors at Yale and Harvard University (2020) shows how the brain releases large amounts of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of happiness and relaxation, both before and after consuming the food. Thus, one is more likely to choose these foods in the future, hoping to release sufficient levels of dopamine and reexperience this pleasure.

In fact, a study conducted in Jagiellonian University and University of Bristol (2021) showed how high fat diets led to changes in the body’s natural clock, blunting neural signals from the hypothalamus. This subdued functioning of neurons in response to the hormones that control satiety leads to overconsumption despite being psychologically full. With the knowledge of these basic instincts, food industries have made carefully deliberated choices on aspects of their food ranging from size, texture and composition to ensure constant cravings in consumers.

Added sugars- the presence of this ingredient has exponentially increased in packaged foods, even in typically savoury products. Since sugars are naturally addictive due to their pleasure stimulating characteristics and ability to increase energy content in food, they are frequently employed to create uncontrolled and addictive cravings in consumers.

Even flavouring has been perfected by industrial food scientists, ensuring that food products are neither bland nor too flavourful. While well-flavoured food seems to be what most would prefer, these foods easily lose their appeal as our taste buds become accustomed to it. Thus, food industrialists have ensured consumers are least likely to experience flavour fatigue with varying and balanced flavour profiles like added salt to sugary snacks, only stimulating future cravings.

Another factor that augments the desire to consume these packaged foods is the time taken to chew. When chewing for longer periods of time, one is able to maximise flavour and is more likely to experience mental and physical satiety. To combat this, food industries have employed a ‘melt in your mouth’ approach to many products, particularly chocolates, leaving the consumers unsatisfied and wanting to experience these flavours once again. As a result, hunger cues are often ignored, leading to more frequent purchases and greater sales for these companies.

Hence, food cravings, typically blamed on lack of willpower, might actually be engineered by industries to maximise consumption. By stimulating one’s pleasure center, consumers are left unknowingly addicted and unsatisfied by these unhealthy products. While one cannot control these additives, being aware of these tactics could be beneficial in reducing unhealthy cravings and ensuring overall health.

 

Nysa Adurkar, a freelance writer from Mumbai

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