Human beings are wired in such a way that hormones - particularly leptin and ghrelin - in our brains signal when we’ve had enough to eat. Ghrelin is known as the “hunger hormone,” while leptin is more commonly known as the “satiety hormone.” Leptin regulates fat storage and activates specific receptors in the arcuate nucleus of the hypothalamus to inhibit the sensation of hunger. However, the rise of food addiction in the past few decades has made this once-smooth mechanism become less effective. Furthermore, both foods and drugs activate the same neural circuits to signal reward by releasing dopamine .
Food is one of the greatest pleasures in life, and we can all admit that it’s something that we anticipate when sitting through a boring lecture just before lunch. When we sit down for a meal, the reward center of the brain – the nucleus accumbens – is satisfied, and dopamine (a neurotransmitter which conveys the feeling of pleasure) is secreted . However, if this system is stimulated chronically through the consumption of a greater amount of sugar-containing foods, the dopamine receptors in our brain begin to degrade, or “down-regulate” . As the number of dopamine receptors declines, the brain is tricked into desiring more to achieve the same level of reward. Brains of obese individuals were studied using neuroimaging, and it was discovered that upon seeing food, their reward centers lit up greatly. However, once they consume the food, the pleasure effect is “blunted” – the individuals are tricked into overeating to activate enough dopamine receptors . This is analogous to an alcoholic developing tolerance and requiring more drinks to get drunk. Like alcoholics, food-addicted individuals experience the same effects of withdrawal when they cut out sugary foods from their diets. In a sense, some people are unable to resist the complex, biochemical urge to eat junk food. This concept is known as hedonic hunger, which drives us to eat purely for pleasure. In this phenomenon, ghrelin (which is normally produced when we need to replenish our energy stores) is released in the presence of foods high in sugar and fat, and not just when we need to increase our caloric intake. Hedonic hunger initially evolved to override the homeostatic system in order to allow the body to consume more than it requires. The evolution of this regulatory mechanism allowed individuals to stock up on calories while they were still available so that they could survive during times when they had to hunt for food and a daily dinner was not guaranteed .
Unfortunately, today many processed foods are packed with sugar to make them more addictive, and big, well-established names in the food industry exploit this addiction to manipulate buyers into emptying their wallets. Large companies like General Mills address consumers’ concerns about sugar and fat content by offering low-fat and sugar-free alternatives. Behind this alluring façade of “healthier” foods lies the ugly truth: these foods are stripped of nearly all nutrients and are often laced with artificial sweeteners, which only exacerbate the addiction problem. Through many complex trials, researchers work to develop complex food formulas to reel in a maximum number of consumers – they make foods enticing enough for the taste buds, but work hard to avoid making the flavor so distinct that it reduces the consumer’s appetite to eat more. Producers save millions of dollars by relying on the principle that there isn’t a single defined “sweet spot,” but rather a range, allowing them to cut back on a key ingredient as long as they stay within this range. Some whistle-blowers have revealed that there’s a “conscious effort… to get people hooked on foods that are convenient and inexpensive” . Cheaper ingredients mean greater savings for the food industry. Some whistle-blowers referred to themselves as food engineers; their primary goal is to develop the most ideal version of the product and to appeal to a greater number of people in order to sell more – a concept known as “food optimization” . What’s so troubling about this? These engineers don’t allow their own children to touch the foods they design.
Perhaps best stated by Yale University professor of psychology and public health Kelly Brownell, “As a culture, we’ve become upset by the tobacco companies advertising to children, but we sit idly by while the food companies do the very same thing. And we could make a claim that the toll taken on the public health by a poor diet rivals that taken by tobacco” .
Returning to the Breaking Bad analogy: why was Walter White so concerned with making his product as pure as possible? As the logic of the TV show goes, the purer the product, the less of it goes to waste. The greater the purity, the more it can be diluted by distributors, and the greater the profit. In the wise words of Heisenberg, “You know the business, and I know the chemistry.”