The New Scientist runs another article this week on the addictive nature of junk food. Evidence is building that increasing consumption of sugar and fat in our diet is altering our brain chemistry – changing the levels of dopamine in our brains’ striatum, manipulating the brain pathways associated with rewards, in a manner identical to drug addiction.
The world, it seems, is full of addictive substances – nicotine, alcohol, prescription and illegal drugs, and now sugar and fats. The food and drink industry is now reacting in the exact same manner the tobacco industry did half a century ago – issuing rejection and denial, blaming the individual’s “lack of discipline” in moderating their consumption.
We now see battle lines being drawn – governments ban junk food from school lunches, and chip vans respond by driving up to the gates. Vending machines disappear, and food purveyors respond by reducing the salt and fat in their foods to make them more socio-politically palatable. And yet, the typical diet of the West has increased in calorific content by 30% since 1970.
As with cocaine and MDMA, the ultimate decision lies with the consumer. There is a grain of truth in the hyperbole of the Big Food industry – you don’t have to eat that Mars bar, or supersize that meal. Say no to the dodgy dealer, whether he deals in crack or candy bars.
But we can still be manipulated – the insidious nature of marketing grows apace, with a multiplicity of formats seeping into everyday life. Children are watching too much TV, at too young an age – even if junk food ads are off the air when they sit down to watch, there are more ways to skin the proverbial cat. Product placements, virals, even simple cultural references in programs kids shouldn’t be watching (but let’s face it, they understand electronic parental controls better than the parents do, and that will never change).
No matter how hard a state tries to mother its citizens, capitalism benefits from people eating unhealthy food, just as it benefits from people smoking and drinking alcohol. The only means by which this can be fought (like almost every problem in the world) is by education and individual responsibility.
Now, time to practise what I preach…