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Why you can’t eat just one chip

We can’t eat just one chip because we are addicted to that packet of chips. Like drugs. Potato chips are carefully crafted with the holy trinity of salt, sugar and fat to hack the reward circuitry of our brain.

Samarth Bansal
Samarth Bansal
8 min read
@thoughtoverdesign for Truth Be Told

Note: Originally published in Truth Be Told, the food and fitness newsletter I co-created with friends at The Whole Truth. You can read our manifesto here and sign up (it's free) if you'd like to receive our stories in your inbox — one long-read every weekend.

Also: If you are following the news, you are hearing about Adani and the explosive Hindenburg report. I wrote a two-part explainer in Splainer.

  • Part One: A New York-based activist investor group has accused the Adani Group of engaging in “brazen stock manipulation” and “accounting fraud scheme” for decades. The report had an immediate effect and Adani’s stock price tanked. Here is a dummy’s guide to understanding the allegations—how exactly did Adani commit this alleged fraud? (Article link)
  • Part Two: Adani’s fate matters for the Indian economy and ordinary citizens: the group is deeply embedded in the country’s infrastructure, and vast volumes of taxpayer money have been pumped in both as debt (from public sector banks) and investment (especially from the Life Insurance Corporation). How will the allegations impact India? (Article link)

I am tracking the Adani affair. Let me know if you have questions.

Now back to the chips story.

In 1963, as young boys and girls at Frito-Lay pitched marketing slogans for the company’s famed potato chips, the elderly senior copywriter Len Holton looked around, wrote five words on a piece of paper and shared it with a colleague. The note circulated across the room and minds were blown.

In a moment of creative genius, Holton landed one of the most famous ad jingles of all time: “Betcha can’t eat just one!”

“Lays’ potato chips: so light, so thin, so crisp, you can eat a million of them, but nobody can eat just one.”

This remarkably clever slogan struck a chord as it captured the essence of potato chips better than anything else: even when you are not that hungry, even when you want to taste just one chip, you can’t. The whole bag disappears into nothingness before long.

That’s all of us — barring some exceptionally lucky superhumans. (I envy you!)

Holton could not have imagined how radically the meaning of his words would change six decades on. Food manufacturers came under scrutiny with the rise in global obesity rates and food-linked chronic diseases in the last forty years. We learnt how they meticulously engineered packaged foods to make us eat more than we need — more than we want.

Like most ultra-processed foods, potato chips are carefully crafted with the holy trinity of salt, sugar and fat to hack the reward circuitry of our brain and induce artificial cravings. They cracked the formula to tap into the basic instincts that override the natural checks preventing us from overeating.

We can’t eat just one chip because we are addicted to that packet of chips. Like drugs.

Wait a minute. That’s a tall claim. “Are chips like drugs? Seriously? Outlandish. Irresponsible scaremongering, huh!” were my thoughts when I first heard these claims.

And then, in 2021, I read the excellent book “Hooked: Food, Free Will, and How the Food Giants Exploit Our Addictions” by Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Michael Moss who convincingly makes the case that ultra-processed foods are addictive. It changed how I think about products in the supermarket.

Do read the book. It’s worth your time.

Today’s piece singularly focuses on the mystery behind the five magic words coined by Holton: what’s in those chips? I discovered the answer in Moss’s book. Here goes.

Start with the definition. What is addiction?

Use the one offered by the chief executive of tobacco giant Philip Morris: addiction is “a repetitive behaviour some people find difficult to quit.”

The key word there is some. For a product to be addictive, not everyone has to fall for it: there are casual heroin consumers, casual smokers and moderate drinkers. Similarly, some people can plausibly eat just one chip.

But their existence does not prove food companies’ innocence because addiction lies on a spectrum: from mildly affected to fully ensnared.

Next question: what’s the addictive substance in those chips?

Cigarettes, cocktails and drugs (like heroin) have nasty chemicals linked to compulsive consumption: nicotine, ethanol, and morphine. So these substances are defined as addictive.

Which chemical compounds are found in chips and cake?

None of the above. Because none of these harsh chemicals are needed: the unholy trinity of salt, sugar and fat do the job. The role of these three ingredients — which Moss investigated in his equally brilliant 2013 book — is central to understanding how the food industry functions.

The combination of this trio in our foods is not natural. For instance, fat and sugar rarely exist in natural food, but they are deeply linked in the modern food environment. Typical processed foods contain, on average, 24% fat and 57% sugar. (If you didn’t already know, savoury products like sauces and bread were sweetened over time.)

“It’s not so much that food is addictive, but rather we by nature are drawn to eating, and the companies changed the food,” said neuroscientist Dana Small.

This combination excites the reward centres of our brains way more than it is used to.

How? Before we get to this, let’s take a slight detour to understand the neurological basis of craving.

Do we crave food when we are hungry? Lol no! Hunger is a poor driver. Other factors dominate: taste, aroma, appearance, and texture. As do emotional needs. And most processed food is designed to be consumed mindlessly. (What else is Netflix and chill for?)

This is a ‘conditioned response’: we learn to behave like this, hidden from our scrutiny. And then we repeat. And it becomes a habit. So if food is lying around us, we will eat it — even when we are not hungry.

That’s the critical bit to remember: cravings are more a game of mind than our stomach.

One player in the game is the chemical that gets us to act compulsively: dopamine. Rewarding experiences — eating, sex, gambling etc. — are associated with increases in dopamine release. And the pleasurable experience makes us repeat the act.

That exciting sensation is essential for survival — we need to eat to live, and dopamine motivates us to eat — but that also drives addiction.

So what do addictive substances do? They exploit our brain’s ability to remember unnatural highs clearly and motivate itself to find more of them in future.

In that sense, food, music, and drugs are not mind-altering; they are mind-engaging. When they hit our senses, they send signals to the brain and release dopamine. This is why when we see or merely think about chocolate cake, dopamine makes us want a slice as much as sugar and butter in the cake, Moss wrote in his book.

Back to salt, sugar and fat: When these ingredients are combined, we are more aroused than either alone, and we get rewarded more.

Take the sugar and fat combo as an example. When our body detects sugar, electrical signals race from our taste buds directly to the brain; when it detects fat, the trigeminal nerve (which extends from the roof of the mouth to the brain) sends the signal. So there are two separate alerts—double arousal.

One more factor is crucial: the ability of a substance to excite our brain and set compulsive behaviour in motion depends on the speed at which a substance hits the brain. The faster the speed, the greater its seduction.

And speed is the hallmark of addiction.

That’s where a critical argument — the one I found the hardest to believe — comes in: ultra-processed foods can be more addictive than drugs and cigarettes.

Here is how. When we consume tobacco and drugs, the substance must enter the bloodstream to reach the brain. Smoke carrying nicotine from mouth to blood in our brain takes around ten seconds — meaning ten seconds from feeling the desire to smoke to feeling the reward.

For that reason, in the 1980s, people started switching from snorting cocaine to smoking in the form of crack, as smoking reduced the time for drugs to hit the brain from five to ten minutes to just ten seconds. So the reward for smoking cocaine (because of faster speed) was much greater than injecting it through the nose.

Now, look at sugar. It does not need to enter the bloodstream as it goes straight from the taste buds to the brain. In just 600 milliseconds — 20 times faster than cigarettes. Boom. And the faster the rise, the faster the drop. And so we look for more food. We get hooked.

What’s special about potato chips is that they have all three big elements: Every byte of a potato chip offers an intense combination of salt, sugar and fat.

Salt is, in fact, the first bit that leads to overeating: it’s right outside the surface of the chip, hits the saliva first, and carries the salty taste to our brain’s reward centre, which asks for more.

So we keep eating.

And then you have the noise: Moss quotes research which found the more crunchy noise a chip makes, we like it more and want to eat more. So chip companies also optimise their recipes for crafting the perfect sound. (Insane, no?)

And then you have the variety: “Magic Masala”, “Classic Salted”, “Cream and Onion”. Just how many types of chips are available in the market? Ten? Twenty? These flavours exist for a reason.

Moss explains that we are prone to what food scientists call ‘sensory-specific satiety’ — that is, we feel full when we eat a lot of the same taste, smell, or flavour. The novelty lights up the brain if the flavour changes just a little, say from barbecue to honey barbecue. And we eat. (Our built-in appeal for variety had an evolutionary advantage: survival was easy if our hunter-gatherer ancestors selected varied foods with various nutrients.)

And the last bit, our stomach’s response: While our brain has more control over our cravings, the stomach also accelerates and holds a break on our appetite. When we eat whole grains, fibrous veggies and stuff with lots of water, our stomach physically stretches and prompts the brain to put on the brakes. But in foods loaded with salt, sugar and fat, the stop signal is massively delayed, and by the time it arrives, it is already too late.

That’s the primary lesson of this story: our biology and genetics are fundamentally mismatched with the composition of ultra-processed foods. So our inbuilt mechanisms to prevent overeating fail. And so you can not eat just one chip.

So what to do?

Michael Moss says that while companies know what we fall for, we also know about them — what they are doing with our food. So we can fight back. Here are his tips:

1) Slow down: Speed drives the brain crazy with lust, so companies keep making ‘fast’ products. Solution? Intentionally slow down eating. Give the ‘stop’ part of the brain time to catch up. Make your pasta sauce or snack on pistachios while still in shells, as the time we lose here keeps cravings in check. If you pay more attention to what you eat, the brake in your brain gets a better grip on your compulsions

2) Rethink ‘cost’: the industry is hooked on salt, sugar and fat not only because it’s addictive but also because they make food production cheap. And lower prices drive up sales. They advertise cheapness and convenience. Reevaluate what you value, and when you do, remember the hidden costs we pay.

3) Get rid of the packaging: We can diminish the appeal of products by dumping the brightly coloured packaging of processed food. Oreos are less tempting when placed in a cookie jar.

4) Develop new habits — the holy grail of everything food and fitness. Throughout the book, Moss tells us: ‘we like what we eat more, than we eat what we like’. So if we gradually change our food preferences, we can beat this addiction—one step at a time.

Two tips from me too!

1) Mindful shopping: I make a list of stuff to buy from the supermarket — stuff my rational brain tells me I should eat — before shopping and return with just what’s in there. That avoids the mindless purchase of snacks because they lie at the checkout counter. It bypasses that feeling of ‘let me just try this’ — traps, all traps.

2) Read labels, buy well: It’s tough not to buy any packaged food — not for me, at least. (But how awesome that’d be.) So I read labels. Thoroughly. I don’t fall for ridiculous and misleading claims. It’s important to remember that not everything in the supermarket is terrible. We need to learn to identify the relatively good stuff from the relatively bad stuff. (We covered label reading in the previous issue.)

Knowing everything I learnt from the book, I still eat chips. I confess, they are great — but no bulk buying of chips packets, no mindless gorging while bingeing TV. Eat mindfully. That’s the only way to regain control.

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