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Hooked on junk food? Tips to fight sugary, salty food lures

A new sensor may be the answer to obesity. (File, Associated Press)

“Bet you can’t eat just one!” Sometimes it’s hard to stop once you dip your hand into a bag of crunchy, salty, delicious potato chips. But could they actually be addictive?

In research for his new book, “Salt, Sugar, Fat: How Food Giants Hooked Us,” New York Times investigative reporter Michael Moss tells KIRO Radio’s Luke Burbank Show that he found some experts that say these super salty and sweet foods could be addictive.

“I spent time with Nora Volkow, the head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, who has done research on both narcotics and highly palatable foods,” says Moss. “She’s convinced some of us the most highly sweetened sugary fatty foods are every bit as addictive as some narcotics, and in fact they’re harder to deal with because you can’t just go cold turkey on food, we all need it.”

Moss says people are attracted to sugary foods because the brain sees it as instant calories and sends a message to eat more. He also says today there’s more and more sugar in foods that didn’t used to have it. For example, in half-cup serving of Prego pasta sauce, Moss says there’s about as much sugar as two Oreo cookies. Kids especially are getting accustomed to the sugary tastes he says.

“It’s really striking to me how many scientists within the realm of the food industry are really increasingly upset by this,” says Moss. “They’re greatly disturbed about the processed food industry, saying they’re exploiting the biology of the child by making children now expect to have sweetness in so many foods that didn’t have them before.”

Food makers are targeting this sweet spot Moss says. One industry expert that clued him in on his process for creating a new flavor of soda for Dr. Pepper told Moss they aim for the “bliss point.” The expert explained it to Moss like a bell curve.

“Your listeners can do this experiment too if they like sugar in their coffee,” Moss explains, “just keep adding sugar until you get to the optimum place. Keep adding more and you’ll get to the yuck-moment. The bliss point is the perfect amount of sweetener, not just in soda but in products all over the grocery store that increasingly have sweetness as an allure.”

The grocery story can be a tricky place to navigate says Moss. He explains most of the highly sugary products are placed right at eye level, on purpose. His family tries to avoid the problem by getting the whole clan involved. He shares one way his wife got his 8 and 13-year-old sons to participate.

“My wife recently said, ‘Hey guys let’s try to limit our cereal to those brands with 5 grams [of sugar] or less per serving.’ So now when they go in the store to go shopping, it’s a bit like an Easter egg hunt for them.”

Moss says kids aren’t stupid, they don’t want to be overweight or unhealthy.

“They become part of the process and they can find the Cheerios without the 1 gram of sugar actually, like Special K and Total,” says Moss. “There are products in the grocery store that if we pay more attention to hunting for those, you can really change your diet in meaningful ways without a huge effort.”

Moss recommends heading to the supermarket with a list, and sticking to it, to avoid all the lures put in place by the food makers trying to suck you into the product. Once you make a move to less sugary and salty foods, Moss says it just takes a few weeks for your palette to adjust.

For more information, check out Moss’ book “Salt, Sugar, Fat: How Food Giants Hooked Us.”

Michael Moss is appearing at Town Hall Seattle on March 15 at 7:30 p.m.

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