Sounds scary, doesn’t it? Today, a third of all Americans are obese and another one-third are overweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This epidemic may be due to the way food products are designed to create opiate-like addictions that act upon the brain in the same way morphine or heroin does.
In 2003, Professor John Banzhaf drew parallels between food manufacturers’ practices and techniques used by cigarette companies to deny culpability for making tobacco more addictive. Banzhaf, who played a key role in historic lawsuits against tobacco companies, said, “They said smokers smoke for the taste, and it had nothing to do with the brain. It sounds to me that we have something very similar here,” just one day after the release of a 20-year study on overeating.
The study, undertaken by the University of Sussex, revealed that administering opioid blocking medications reduced food intake by 21-33% among participating adults. One of the scientists, Dr. Martin Yeomans, told reporters “I am confident that opioids play a role in food intake.”
Opiates first produce a feeling a pleasure, then an alternating state of drowsiness and wakefulness. They reduce pain temporarily. As they leave the body, users are motivated to reproduce the effects, partly to avoid unpleasant withdrawal and partly to reproduce pleasurable sensations. Chronic use over time produces changes in the brain that require more of the drug to produce the same effect. All of these statements are true for many people, including some who aren’t overweight. The key difference is that food is required for survival, while narcotic drugs are not.
Like the tobacco cases that smoldered for years before the smoking gun was exposed, the subject of manipulating foods to create addictions has been cloaked in mystery, but the matter has increasingly gained attention. The National Library of Medicine database reveals that twenty-eight studies on food addiction were published in 2011.
One study found that rats became addicted to sugar water and suffered physical withdrawal symptoms such as tremors when drugs blocked the pleasurable effects of their sweet drinks. Another discovered that rats that became addicted to sugar water did not become obese; however, when their water was sweetened with high fructose corn syrup, they quickly gained weight. Yet another research project revealed that viewing sugary sweets can produce similar activity in the brain as alcoholics experience when they anticipate drinking.
Researchers have pointed to a combination of highly processed sugars, fats, and salts as creating an addictive pattern that can lead to metabolic syndrome, characterized by high blood sugar, increased fat around the waistline, and higher blood pressure. These conditions can contribute to strokes, heart attacks, and diabetes.
Other additives have also been implicated. Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is well known for its negative effects and could interfere with appetite suppression, according to Melissa Bernstein and Ann Schmidt Luggen, authors of a college textbook, Nutrition for the Older Adult.
Milk and wheat derivatives may be the worst offenders. Both introduce biologically active proteins known as peptides to the human body. Peptides act upon the human brain the same way opiate drugs do. But the way they are ingested today hardly resembles the way they were absorbed into the human body prior to the 1970s, when people simply drank milk or ate simple breads and grains.
Fast food typically contains at least one peptide-producing wheat product in the form of hamburger buns, tortilla wraps, and breading on meats. At home, people consume sliced bread, pancakes, crackers, and snack foods loaded with similar ingredients. Many of them also have added caseins that increase the drug-like effects.
Milk caseins are produced by separating milk into solids and skim milk through a fermentation process. Rich in amino acids, caseins are proteins that activate pleasure centers of the brain in the same manner as opiate drugs. Until the 1960s, caseins were used for industrial purposes, such as finishing leather, creating glue, and producing synthetic fibers and plastics.
Between the mid-1960s and late 1970s, food manufacturers adopted methods to concentrate them, increase their opioid effects, and introduce them to many processed foods. Infant foods, food bars, baked goods, meats, pastas, soups, gravies, baked goods, and sports drinks typically incorporate caseins for its nutritional elements. Caseins are used as a fat emulsifier in whipped creams, yogurts, and coffee creamers. Ice cream and cheese products use them for texture.
Critics claim that people are responsible for their choices, and that overeating is a conscious choice. Unfortunately, maintaining a gluten-free and casein-free diet that also restricts salt and sugar intake poses a significant challenge. Ingredient lists often obscure these products. Fructose and sucrose are sugars, for instance. Caseins may be called caseinates or labeled as protein, milk solids, curds, lactose, or a variety of other lact- words. Glutens, the source of peptides, are also referenced as whey, modified starch, vegetable protein, natural flavoring, and a variety of other terms.
Besides requiring a doctorate degree simply to understand the ingredients labels, sustaining such a diet would likely result in vitamin deficiencies.
Caseins, peptides, and sugars are not currently classified as opiates, but produce nearly identical effects in the brain. The purposeful manipulation of food to capitalize on this effect may very well become the next major multi-billion dollar class-action lawsuit, and its outcome could have a huge impact in grocery aisles everywhere. Then again, addicts protect their addictions. Will Americans decide to give up instant foods, boxed mixes, snacks, and fast foods, or will they give up their health in exchange for flavor and convenience?