Food Designed for Addiction

Why can’t I just have one?

Those living with excess weight assume the main reason they choose taste over health is because of convenience or a lack of willpower. But you may be surprised to know that the “foods” in grocery stores, schools, work, and pretty much everywhere in between, are engineered for addiction, in the same way as cigarettes or illicit drugs.

‘Hyperpalatable foods’ like pizza, chocolate, or crisps, are foods that contain a mix of ingredients to enhance consumption. They are the inevitable consequence of making simple sugars, processed salt, and hydrogenated oil a key ingredient in food. Also, because the food preservation process eliminates nutrients as well as flavor, food scientists use delicious, but unfortunately, illness-causing ingredients and chemicals to keep their products enticing. Over time, these methods have been finetuned to make profitable foods that dominate the Western diet, leading to a pandemic of obesity, Type 2 Diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and premature, but preventable death.

Surprisingly, it is hyperpalatable food, not alcohol or cigarettes, that is the main drug consumed by men, women, and children daily, evidenced by the fact that 64% of the UK population is overweight or obese[1]—which is 24% more than the combined cigarette[2], illicit drug[3], and alcohol overuse[4] figures in Britain. Similar statistics can be seen across the globe, with 67% of Americans[5] and 60% of Irish[6] being overweight or obese. In fact, 2 billion adults in the global population are either overweight or obese[7].

What Makes a Food Hyperpalatable?

When thinking about hyperpalatable food, processed and ultra-processed foods come to mind. Ultra-Processed Foods (UPF) are the leading cause of diet-related disease, and this is whether someone is living with excess weight or not. UPF is thought to play a profound role in the heart attacks and cancer that accounts for half of global deaths annually[8].

In UPFs, the food industry combines fat (in the form of hydrogenated oils), mineral-depleted salt and simple sugars with chemical additives to make tasty, convenient foods. These ingredients are used to engineer an amplified sensory appeal with nearly untapped amounts of fat, salt, and sugar added to small quantities of nutrient-devoid food.

Another factor of hyperpalatable food is that along with taste, the texture, color, and aroma of foods are also enhanced, further enticing consumers. These modifications not only make UPFs ‘easier’ to eat and more convenient to prepare, the artificial coloring and strong smells particularly engage younger people, while creating a powerful anticipation response to eat them.

What Exactly Makes Hyperpalatable Foods So Addictive?

Have you ever heard someone open a bag of potato crisps and thought you needed to open a bag yourself? Or seen someone bite into a doughnut, (with its excess fat and sugar), and immediately go over and pick one up yourself?

Hyperpalatable products override the multiple mechanisms the body has in place to manage hunger and stop eating. These products beat out hormones, the stretch responses in your stomach and intestines (which signal you’re full) and can even manipulate your mood.

Hyperpalatable foods interfere with the body’s balance of minerals and nutrients, compounds essential for health. Low levels of these compounds have been proven to increase the consumption of sweets in individuals. Additionally, low consumption of fibre decreases important fatty acids, called short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) in your gut, which in-turn, increases food intake and hunger.

This is because hyperpalatable products change our relationship with food, so that instead of craving nutrients and energy (found in healthy foods), we experience hunger simply to top up our reward center or to easily fill nutrient gaps, called “hedonic hunger”[9]. This means we become driven by food cues (like a commercial or hearing the sizzle of a hot dog on a grill), rather than actual hunger.

The easier it is to obtain the food that triggers hedonic hunger, the more that food is reinforced in the reward center. So, when a bag of crisps is easier to access and eat than a salad, your body will start to crave the crisps first during actual times of hunger.

So, What Can You Do?

Hyperpalatable foods are engineered unethically for profit, by preying on human biology, exploiting our natural inclination towards foods that trigger pleasure. It’s no surprise that many of the most well-known and hyperpalatable UPF brands, like Lunchables and Jell-O, were under food manufacturers once owned by Big Tobacco[10].

In 2019, 64% of avoidable deaths in the UK were considered preventable[11], and many of these preventable conditions were fuelled by metabolic or obesity-related illness. But all is not lost — the first step is to acknowledge the existence and influence of hyperpalatable foods to avoid falling into their trap. Importantly, don’t shame those with excess weight or those who eat high quantities of UPF — now is the time to inform your friends and family of the habit-forming consequences of hyperpalatable foods.

Unfortunately, a lot of people are already addicted to these highly engineered foods. Yet, food can be made extremely palatable and highly delicious without harming health by re-wiring your reward system to things that sustain your body. People use techniques every day to boost the tastiness of a meal, and they do this when they combine healthy fats, mineral-rich salt, and healthy sugar sources at moderate to high levels in a way that synergistically enhances its palatability.

Certain herb, spice and functional food combinations achieve this easily, such as:

  • Mixing turmeric, ginger, garlic, paprika, coriander, and cumin, or infusing these herbs in cold-pressed olive oil — this enhances the taste of food without the need for excess salt or fats.
  • Raw honey, molasses, and papaya can all be good substitutes for sugar, and when paired with organic Greek yogurt and chia seeds, can give that sugar and fat synergy that highly palatable foods have, without harming your health.


[1] Baker, C. (2023). Obesity Statistics., [online] 3336(03336). Available at:

[2] Office of National Statistics. (2022). Adult smoking habits in the UK – Office for National Statistics. [online] Available at:

[3] Office for National Statistics (2022). Drug misuse in England and Wales: year ending June 2022. [online] Available at:

[4] Alcohol Change UK. (n.d.). Alcohol statistics. [online] Available at:

[5] National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (2018). Overweight & Obesity Statistics . [online] National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Available at:

[6] Health Service Executive. (n.d.). Key Facts. [online] Available at:

[7] World Obesity Federation. (2022). Prevalence of Obesity. [online] Available at:

[8] Suksatan, W., Moradi, S., Naeini, F., Bagheri, R., Mohammadi, H., Talebi, S., Mehrabani, S., Hojjati Kermani, M. A., & Suzuki, K. (2021). Ultra-Processed Food Consumption and Adult Mortality Risk: A Systematic Review and Dose-Response Meta-Analysis of 207,291 Participants. Nutrients14(1), 174.

[9] Espel-Huynh, H. M., Muratore, A. F., & Lowe, M. R. (2018). A narrative review of the construct of hedonic hunger and its measurement by the Power of Food Scale. Obesity science & practice4(3), 238–249.

[10] (n.d.). Why are Teddy Grahams, Lunchables, and Jell-O so addictive? It could be Big Tobacco’s fault | U-M LSA Department of Psychology. [online] Available at:–lunchables–and-jell-o-so-addictive–it-c.html#:~:text=New%20research%20suggests%20when%20major [Accessed 9 Jan. 2024].

[11] Office of National Statistics (2021). Avoidable mortality in the UK – Office for National Statistics. [online] Available at:

Written by Charlee Martin