Sugar, Salt, and Fat: Why We Just Can’t Quit Junk Food

Last Update: September 7, 2021

Did you know that Coca Cola calls its most loyal fan base “heavy users?” If this somewhat derogatory term evokes images of kids strung out on sugar chugging a can of Coke, that exact scenario is just what Big Food corporations are banking on.

Nine out of ten Americans self-identify as in “very good” or “somewhat good” health. But according to the American Journal of  Clinical Nutrition, 61 percent of the daily calories most U.S. citizens ingest come from highly processed food.

And when they say highly processed, they mean itresearchers from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition considered highly processed foods those that are “multi-ingredient, industrial mixtures that are no longer recognizable as their original plant or animal source.”

So is it even still food?

What is it about this non-food that keeps people coming back for more? It’s not lack of self-control, as some might believe. No, as it turns out, processed foods pumped with sugar, salt, and fat are actually chemically addicting to the brain.

What’s the problem?

The problem stems entirely from over-processing food. After a while, if food is broken down too much, it loses texture and flavor. The additives that Big Food relies on to flavor food once it’s processed can be addicting, and because these products are often less expensive than their unprocessed counterparts, they have a huge impact on the rise of obesity in the United States.

Why should you care?

Foods that are high in sugar and fat have been scientifically proven to have the same effect on dopamine receptors as highly addictive drugs such as heroin, opium, and morphine. And it’s not just sweetened foods—processed foods higher in sodium share the blame. A study examining the addictive effect of processed food revealed that teenagers who were allowed to eat junk food unwittingly consumed 500 more calories on the days they ate processed food.

Big Food may demur and say that consumers make their own choices—good or bad—when it comes to food. But it’s abundantly clear that the additives in processed food are addicting, and maybe consumers don’t have as much of a choice as we once believed. Like addicts, junk foodies can grow dependent on their next fix of sugar, salt, or fat, and perhaps that contributes to the fact that 70 percent of the population is overweight or obese.

Fat is what gives our food its density and flavor. Consider full fat cream versus nonfat milk in a cup of coffee: It takes a lot more nonfat milk to make a dent in your black coffee than it does cream. But fat is what causes food to go bad, so it’s often removed from foods you see on grocery store shelves so that the store can shill more product before it goes to waste. The easiest fix to make up for this loss in taste and texture? Manufacturers add in a cheaper, highly processed fat like hydrogenated oil—the stuff that clogs arteries.

Even if a company doesn’t want to add fat back into a product, they still need to add another ingredient to improve taste. This is when artificial sugar and sodium push their way onto the ingredient list. Manufacturers add both of these, usually in the form of artificial flavoring or coloring, to restore flavor to a product.

Michael Moss’ bestselling book Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, details exactly how much the food industry manipulates consumers’ tastebuds. Moss digs into famous manufacturers like Kraft and Kellogg and discovers that marketers and food developers tweak the recipes of processed food to make them even more addicting to eaters.

What can you do?

Cut processed foods out, cold turkey. Or at least as many as you can. As consumers begin to question Big Food’s motivation and start to vote with their dollar, the processed food industry has responded. Soda sales in California alone have dropped 25 percent in the last 20 years, and soda companies have responded to the demand for more nutrient-dense drinks and less sugary beverages by dishing out flavored waters and health drinks. The artificial sugars in some of these drinks have nutrition experts questioning whether they are actually a healthier choice compared to their sugary counterparts—so your best bet might be just to stick to water for now.

It’s a little scary to think about how much control the food industry has over our actions, and our nutrition, whether we like it or not. But all hope isn’t lost—every day, there are more and more smaller companies that believe in creating clean, excellent quality products for their consumers. Good news? You can find many of them on Thrive Market.

Illustration by Karley Koenig

We believe that everyone deserves the right to access healthy food. But even in the United States, it can prove impossible for some families. So we created Thrive Gives: a program that gives access, family by family, to affordable, healthy, and wholesome food. Click here to see if you qualify for a free Thrive Gives membership! 

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Michelle Pellizzon

Certified health coach and endorphin enthusiast, Michelle is an expert in healthy living and eating. When she's not writing you can find her running trails, reading about nutrition, and eating lots of guacamole.

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