April 23, 2024


Great Health is a Choice

20 Most Addictive Foods According to Science

In this article, we shall discuss the 20 most addictive foods according to science. To skip our detailed analysis of food addiction and its impact on the fast food and weight loss industries, go directly and see 5 Most Addictive Foods According to Science

According to a poll conducted by the University of Michigan, one in eight Americans over 50 struggle with food addiction. Therefore, it does not come as a surprise that the United States tops our list of 25 Countries With The Highest Rates of Obesity. According to the World Health Organization, obesity remains one of the most significant challenges to public health in the 21st century. A report published by pharmaceutical giant Novo Nordisk (NYSE:NVO) ascertains that the global economic impact of the obesity epidemic is likely to double by 2035 to $4.27 trillion from 2020 levels as prevalence of the condition continues to skyrocket to alarming levels.  

Food Addiction and Fast Food: An In-Depth Look

But why do processed foods pose such a grave threat to public health? Despite rising obesity levels, why do people find it difficult to quit consuming unhealthy food? Here is what Dr. Ashley Gearhardt, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, had to say about the correlation between rising obesity rates and food addiction:

“Evidence is growing that highly processed foods are capable of triggering addictive processes akin to addictive drugs like tobacco. In fact, addictive drugs and highly processed foods are created using very similar processes. For example, humans refine and process a naturally occurring substance (like a tobacco leaf) and process it into a product (like cigarettes) that has unnaturally high levels of a rewarding substance (like nicotine) and then add scores of additives (like ammonia and menthol) to further enhance it. These addictive drugs hijack the same reward centers of the brain that are so powerfully activated by highly processed foods. In fact, highly processed foods and addictive drugs are often consumed for the same reason—to experience a sense of pleasure and to reduce negative emotions. Whether it is a highly processed food or a drug, a substance can become so highly rewarding that it can trigger compulsive behavior (i.e., the person can’t stop even if they really want to). This is good news for industries that profit from selling these substances, but bad news for the rest of us.”

In a June 2023 article, the Guardian traced the genesis of addictive foods. The article posited that “ultra-processed foods” are the source of the rampant food addiction seen across the United States today. In the 1980s, food companies started to engineer a new classification of foods called “ultra-processed foods” at a mass scale. These foods tend to contain exorbitant amounts of sugar, salt, fat, artificial food color, or preservatives – substances that aren’t exactly food so much as “extracted from foods”, like hydrogenated fats, bulking agents, and starches. This formula was later co-opted by massive fast food chains like McDonald’s Corporation (NYSE:MCD), Domino’s Pizza Inc. (NYSE:DPZ) and Yum! Brands (NYSE:YUM). 

In 2009, Brazilian researcher Carlos Monteiro published a paper in which he concluded that “ultra-processed foods” are intentionally and specifically engineered to be “edible, palatable, and habit-forming”. According to Monteiro, added usage of salt, sugar, fat, and preservatives in addictive foods by fast food conglomerates like McDonalds (NYSE:MCD), Domino’s (NYSE:DPZ) and Yum! Brands (NYSE:YUM) stimulate the release of dopamine. It signals to the brain that one is not eating as much as one actually is, leading to the obesity epidemic the United States struggles with today. To know more about the rising consumption of fast food around the world and the impact it is having on the global economy, check out our article on the Top 20 Countries With Highest Fast Food Consumption.

The Rise of The Weight Loss Industry

As food companies enhance the use of addictive ingredients in their portfolio thereby exacerbating the global obesity crisis, consumers are beginning to adopt a different perspective to wellness and weight loss, according to a survey by McKinsey and Company. For the modern consumer, weight loss is to be looked at through a much more “sophisticated lens”, incorporating not only weight loss, nutrition and fitness but also physical and mental health wellbeing. The study surveyed roughly 7500 respondents across six major markets around the world to conclude that more than 79% of consumers believe weight loss and wellness to be important, and 42% consider it to be a foremost priority.

As pointed out in our article “11 Best Weight Loss Stocks to Invest In, consumer interest and purchasing power remains on the upsurge and is beginning to present numerous opportunities for weight loss companies. According to McKinsey, the global wellness market is worth more than $1.5 trillion, with an annual growth rate of up to 10 percent. Post the COVID-19 crisis and with conversations around food addiction making it into the mainstream, spending on personal wellness is on a strong rebound. With its flagship anti-obesity drug Wegovy, Novo Nordisk (NYSE:NVO) is a major player in the weight loss market. Other prominent weight loss stocks are Medifast Inc. (NYSE:MED) and Eli Lilly and Company (NYSE:LLY). However, McKinsey also points out that due to this rebound, the weight loss market is becoming increasingly competitive, creating the need for companies to be incredibly strategic about how and where they create points of competition.

As the food industry continues to double down on many of the addictive ingredients that go into the products which made our list of the most addictive foods according to science, hedge funds are diverting major investments into health and pharmaceutical stocks like Novo Nordisk (NYSE:NVO), Medifast Inc. (NYSE:MED), and Eli Lilly and Company (NYSE:LLY).

Our Methodology

To create our list of the 20 most addictive foods according to science, we relied on a widescale study conducted by the University of Michigan. The survey is one of the most extensive studies ever conducted on food addiction and has more than 400 citations. The researchers studied addiction-like eating habits of more than 520 participants. Each participant was provided with a list of 35 foods, both processed and unprocessed. The respondents used the Yale Food Addiction Scale (YFAS) as a point of reference. The YFAS measures addiction-like eating of palatable foods based on the eleven primary diagnostic criteria of substance dependence in the fifth revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V).

With the YFAS as a point of reference, each respondent was then asked to rate a variety of foods on a scale of 1 (not at all addictive) to 7 (extremely addictive). After every respondent had rated each type of food, the resultant scores of were then averaged out to create an individual score for each entry. The foods were then ranked based on the average score they obtained, from lowest to highest.

In this vein, here is our list of the 20 most addictive foods according to science.

Most Addictive Foods According to Science

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Most Addictive Foods According to Science

20. Eggs

Average Score: 2.18

One of the most versatile foods to make and consume, eggs are a breakfast staple across the world. Due to the extensive variety in which eggs can be prepared and eaten, they make our list of the 20 most addictive foods according to science.

19. Nuts

Average Score: 2.47

Nuts contain a lot of vegetable omega 6-fatty acids. That, coupled with the unique combination of flavors and textures that many people find appealing, contribute to the “munching” behavior which is commonly attributed to nuts.

18. Muffins

Average Score: 2.50

Muffins are quaint and colorful pieces of cake in a cup-shaped foil and are typically iced. Although they seem harmless, research has shown that the butter in the fluffy sponges and the excessive amount of sugar in the icing ensure a habitual consumption of muffins by the consumer.

17. Steaks

Average Score: 2.54

Steaks, which are thick cuts of meat that are usually grilled or fried, are an American culinary favorite. They are usually prepared  in domestic and professional kitchens and are often a household offering in a menu. Steaks may appear in small amounts in an hors d’oeuvre, in an entrée dish or, more usually, in a significant amount as the main course.

16. Gummy Candies

Average Score: 2.57

Popularly known as “gummies”, gummy candy are a broad category of gelatin based chewable candy. They are available in a diverse variety of shapes, flavors, and sizes and contain exorbitant amounts of sugar which make them incredibly addictive. They are one of the most widely consumed types of confectionary and their popularity among children ranks them on our list of the 20 most addictive foods according to science.

15. Breakfast Cereals

Average Score: 2.59

Perhaps one of the most surprising entries on this list, respondents highlighted breakfast cereals to be incredibly addicting. This is probably due to the added usage of sugar and salt which are often used in processed foods to make people crave them more.

14. Popcorn

Average Score: 2.64

Whether it be because of the addition of strong aroma chemicals or the added usage of addictive ingredients like salt and butter, developing excessive consumption patterns with respect to popcorn is an incredibly common occurrence. As popcorn becomes synonymous with movies and sleepovers, it is fast emerging as one of the most widely consumed snacks in the United States.

13. Rolls

Average Score: 2.73

One of the few non-processed foods to make our list of the 20 most addictive foods according to science, a roll is a round or oblong individual loaf of bread usually served as a meal accompaniment in American English and British traditions. They can be eaten whole, or can be cut and filled. Bread rolls are increasingly common in Eastern, Northern, and Western Europe.

12. Fried Chicken

Average Score: 2.97

A tradition dating back to the European Middle Ages, deep fried chicken is a dish consisting of chicken pieces that have been coated with flour and deep-fried. It is one of the most popular fast foods, with Yum! Brands (NYSE:YUM) and McDonald’s (NYSE:MCD) cementing their place as two of the biggest producers of the dish.

11. Bacon

Average Score: 3.03

According to a study by the National Institute of Health, bacon is one of the most addictive foods primarily due to its distinctive scent, its nostalgic value, and the exorbitant amount of salt and fat it contains.

10. Cheese

Average Score: 3.22

Cheese is one of the most popular dairy products in the world, used cross-culturally in an incredibly diverse variety of cuisines. Surveys show that on average, Americans consume more than eleven pounds of cheese per person per year as of 2018. One of the primary reasons for this is the presence of the protein casein which can cross the blood-brain barrier and attach on dopamine receptors in the brain, causing addiction-like symptoms. Fast food companies like McDonald’s (NYSE:MCD), Yum! Brands (NYSE:YUM) and Domino’s (NYSE:DPZ) use large amounts of cheese in their product portfolio.

9. Cakes

Average Score: 3.26

Due to excessive amounts of sugar, desserts like cake cause the brain to release endorphins such as serotonin. These hormones tend to make one feel happy, calm, and cheerful, replicating the same effects certain drugs have on the brain. Hence, cakes make our list of the 20 most addictive foods according to science.

8. Sodas

Average Score: 3.29

Like cake, sodas also contain abnormally large quantities of sugar. Additionally though, according to a study by Ohio State University, carbonation also makes sodas incredibly addictive. The bubbles tend to add a minute amount of acidity, which when coupled with excessive caffeine, intensifies feelings of euphoria in the consumer.

7. Cheeseburgers

Average Score: 3.51

A study by the University of Wisconsin posited that cheeseburgers can be just as addictive as cigarettes and on occasion, even hard drugs. Due to high quantities of fat and carbohydrates, cheeseburgers can alter brain biochemistry in the same way as certain powerful opiates such as morphine.

6. French fries

Average Score: 3.60

French fries are part of a select group of foods that come under the category of “hyperpalatable foods”. Due to an excessive amount of salt, fat, and carbohydrate, French fries stimulate the reward center of the brain to induce constant craving within the consumer. Fast food giants like McDonald’s (NYSE:MCD) and Yum! Brands (NYSE:YUM) coat fries in dextrose, a form of sugar to create feelings of euphoria and happiness.

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Disclosure: None. 20 Most Addictive Foods According to Science is originally published on Insider Monkey.