Ugh… stress eating! We’ve all done it. But did you ever think about why? Also, why do we crave junk food when we stress eat? It’s all a science my friends, and I’m going to tell you all about it.
Food Scientist, Steven Witherly has dedicated the last 20 years of his life to studying what makes food addictive and what properties cause us to have cravings. He explains in his report, “Why Humans Like Junk Food,” how the sensation of eating and the macronutrients (proteins, fats, and carbs) present cause different foods to be more pleasurable than others. The sensation of food includes things such as taste, smell, and texture (also known as orosensation). Orosensation proves to be extremely important. Companies have spent millions of dollars to research aspects like the most desirable crunch of a potato chip. In regards to the role of macronutrients, companies, such as Frito Lay and Cocoa Cola spend a lot of money and time perfecting the blend of fats, sugars, and salt that will excite the brain to ensure that costumers will continue to come back for taste after taste.
There are certain scientific strategies companies use to make food more addictive. Witherly found that the following 6 reasons are the biggest contributors to what makes certain foods so desirable.
Dynamic contrast refers to different textures within a single piece of food. Take an oreo for example. The initial crunch of the cookie is extremely exciting and then the creamy oreo filling that follows makes for a great mouthfeel overall. Salivary response is how much a food causes a person to salivate. The more saliva produced when eating, the better someone is able to taste the food. This is why emulsified foods and foods that have a glaze or sauce are extremely pleasurable.
Rapid food meltdown and vanishing caloric density simply means how fast food dissolves in your mouth. When food melts in your mouth it sends a signal to your brain that tricks it into thinking you’re not full, even if you’re consuming a lot of calories. A perfect example of this is Cheetos. Witherly says Cheetos are, “one of the most marvelously constructed foods on the planet…”. The initial crunch followed by the orange puff’s uncanny ability to dissolve in your mouth within seconds is extremely pleasurable to one’s palate. The fact that the Cheetos dissolve so quickly tricks the brain to make you think you are eating less than you actually are. This is why people are able to eat so many in one sitting.
Sensory specific response is the next important factor when it comes to making junk food desirable. Overtime, you can become immune to tastes or they can become less interesting to you. Junk food companies are extremely aware of this, which is why many different types of junk food are specifically designed to eliminate the sensory specific response.
Calorie density is another very important aspect that food companies take into account when producing food for consumers. Junk foods specifically are designed to trick the brain into thinking that you’re getting enough nutrients from them. Receptors send messages to the brain about the different macronutrients present in food. Usually junk foods provide just enough nutrients to trick the brain into thinking it’s getting enough energy without filling you up. This is another reason why overeating junk food is so common.
Lastly, food, believe it or not, can bring out certain memories or feelings from the past. When you eat a specific food you like, your brain releases hormones that bring about a happy feeling. The next time you smell that food or eat that food, it’s almost inevitable that the same feeling will be brought out again. Food companies spend a ton of money researching the most pleasurable flavors and addictive sensations to help sell their products.
So the next time you’re stressed out and are craving some Panda Paws ice cream and potato chips, you can thank the scientists for making those products so dang irresistible!