‘Was anybody living 200 years ago addicted to food? I have never come across an account of an apple addiction.’ Photograph: Getty Images
Many of my colleagues – researchers who study overeating – now routinely use the term food addiction, and advocate for its recognition as a psychiatric diagnosis.
It’s true that rats, monkeys and humans show addiction-like behaviour when exposed to highly palatable, calorie-dense foods, sometimes even preferring them to drugs such as cocaine. But I’ve come to see that nearly all the foods that elicit addictive behaviour share one thing in common: they have been significantly altered or enhanced through manufactured flavour chemicals and ingredients – also known as drugs.
Quite simply, food is not addictive; drugs are addictive. And food companies are putting drugs in our food. The correct name for this problem is food additive addiction, or perhaps refined food addiction.
Was anybody living 200 years ago addicted to food? I have never come across an account of an apple addiction, a cashew addiction, or a salmon addiction. But were people living 200 years ago addicted to alcohol, tobacco, or opiates? Of course. That’s because each of those substances has inherently addictive properties, containing a specific psychoactive compound that causes intoxication, dependence or withdrawal. Such addictive substances rarely occur in nature, and are typically created through processing.
Commercially sold cookies now share many of the same reward-giving properties as crystal meth. That’s because they contain highly palatable and highly profitable ingredients, often forms of sugar or salt. These are not your grandmother’s salt and sugar – they are complex formulations engineered by food scientists to be irresistible. They’re psychoactive compounds that meet the definition of an addictive substance.
For example, forms of salt have been developed that dissolve far faster than normal and deliver a jolt to the brain. These resemble natural salt no more than crack cocaine resembles the coca leaf.
If we were to remove the engineered flavour chemicals from our processed food, it wouldn’t sell – it would be edible, but not highly palatable, and certainly not addictive.
In other words, it’s everything but the food that is addictive.
Not all of the foods causing addiction-like behaviour are packaged or processed foods. That’s why “carboholic” is a slightly better term, in that addictive behaviour is almost always toward carbohydrate-rich food such as cake, pastas, chips and cookies. Still, carboholic misses the mark because plain carbohydrates, such as bananas, beans or peas, do not generally elicit cravings, bingeing or addictive behaviour. It is only the highly altered carbohydrates, with refined ingredients, that see addictive behaviour.
In theory, one could make these addictive foods in a home kitchen. It’s just that most people usually don’t. Nor do most people distil their own alcohol, roast their own coffee beans or cook their own meth. Creating an addictive substance is time-consuming, which is why, when left to market forces, production and distribution of such substances tends to occur in complex networks separate from the end user.
So if the manufactured chemicals are the problem, why do we talk about food addiction? The Yale Food Addiction Scale (YFAS), created in 2009 and now translated into several languages and cited in hundreds of studies, cemented the concept of food addiction in the public and scientific imagination. But the scale prompts respondents to answer questions about foods such as ice cream, doughnuts, chips, french fries and sodas – foods that include drugs in their ingredient list.
There is no doubt that the great many people struggling with overeating deserve compassionate and effective treatment. My colleagues are not wrong in wanting to create a diagnosis to help those suffering. But the term food addiction misleads the public, is scientifically inaccurate, and obfuscates the specific and deliberate role food companies have had in adding drugs to our food.
Rejecting the term food addiction is not just a semantic splitting of hairs. Calling food addictive casts it as a dangerous substance – something to be afraid of because it can overtake and defeat us. Fearing food complicates our relationship to it, and creates nutritional confusion.
By contrast, correctly calling it drug addiction, food additive addiction or refined food addiction focuses public health efforts on the real culprits of our food woes: the food industry, and not food itself.
• Kima Cargill is Associate Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Washington, Tacoma and the author of The Psychology of Overeating: Food and the Culture of Consumerism