Have Processed Foods Hijacked Your Taste Buds?

Have Processed Foods Hijacked Your Taste Buds?

Do you ever wonder why it’s so hard to put down a bag of chips or why you keep reaching for cookie after cookie? Chances are the packaged foods that you can’t seem to walk away from contain some type of flavor enhancers that are actually designed to make it nearly impossible to stop.

70% of the American diet is made up of packaged, highly processed foods, and the demand keeps growing. In a 2017 study looking at the distribution of processed foods in the US diet, over half of participants’ calories came from ultra-processed foods (like soft drinks, cookies, and french fries). Since these products are so popular, and have generally high profit margins, companies are continuously incentivized to create and sell more packaged goods.

One way of maximizing sales, similar to methods in the tobacco industry, is to make sure customers keep coming back for more. Fast food joints and food manufacturers hire teams of scientists and “engineers” who are responsible for creating flavors and textures that make processed foods irresistible. According to The Environmental Working Group (EWG), “the annual sales of the fragrance and flavor industry is estimated at $24 billion”.

You’ve probably seen many of these ingredient concoctions listed on food labels as artificial flavor, which, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, is “any substance, the function of which is to impart flavor, which is not derived from…” something in nature. The main purpose of these flavors is to create a hyper-palatable eating experience.

As consumers learn the potential health consequences of consuming artificial flavors, they begin looking for more natural alternatives. One of the most common ingredients listed on these “healthier” packaged food labels is “natural flavors,” which is seemingly benign. How could there be anything wrong with naturally derived flavors?

The FDA classifies natural flavors as “…the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional.”

While these flavors are technically derived from natural ingredients, they are created in a lab purely for flavor enhancement. By making these packaged foods taste better (often better than the real thing), natural flavors help to ensure consumers keep coming back for more and even prefer this ultra-processed version.

Since there is little transparency when it comes to what these “flavors” actually are, it’s easy for companies to hide ingredients behind the label of natural flavors. For instance, many people avoid purchasing products with MSG (monosodium glutamate) in the ingredients, a flavor enhancer known for giving food a distinct umami, or savory taste. Food manufacturers are aware of this, so they now disguise glutamate by-products as “natural flavors”.

Many added flavorings, like these glutamate by-products, are excitotoxins, a class of chemicals that can overstimulate your neurons. When you consume foods containing excitotoxins, your taste buds are hit with a flavor blast that, once it dissipates, leads you to seek the sensation again.

Aside from added flavors, packaged foods are also often full of added sugar. Even if a product isn’t marketed as a dessert or sweet – think salad dressings, sauces and breads – it most likely contains at least one type of added sweetener, commonly high fructose corn syrup. Consuming sugar gives your brain a rush of dopamine, which is a neurotransmitter responsible for pleasure and motivation in your brain’s reward system. When dopamine is triggered, it causes you to seek more of whatever it is that gave you that rush, which in this case might be a jar of sugary pasta sauce.

By coupling lab-created flavor combinations and loads of added sugar, companies have figured out perfectly how to gain consumers and keep them coming back for more. These brands end up becoming household names, which only further increases their prevalence in the lives of millions of Americans. If you have a hard time stopping yourself after opening up a bag of chips, it might be smart to keep them out of your house altogether.


Fiona Riddle is a Certified Health Coach with a degree in Psychology from UCLA. She is passionate about a holistic approach to health when working with her private coaching clients. She is an avid cook, constantly creating and sharing new recipes on her Instagram (@feelgoodwithfi) to showcase simple clean home cooking. She has helped clients take their health into their own hands and successfully boost their energy and confidence through sustainable lifestyle changes. www.feelgoodwithfi.com