But no addictive drug can fire up the reward circuitry in our brains as rapidly as our favorite foods, Mr. Moss writes. “The smoke from cigarettes takes 10 seconds to stir the brain, but a touch of sugar on the tongue will do so in a little more than a half second, or six hundred milliseconds, to be precise,” he writes. “That’s nearly 20 times faster than cigarettes.”
This puts the term “fast food” in a new light. “Measured in milliseconds, and the power to addict, nothing is faster than processed food in rousing the brain,” he added.
Mr. Moss explains that even people in the tobacco industry took note of the powerful lure of processed foods. In the 1980s, Philip Morris acquired Kraft and General Foods, making it the largest manufacturer of processed foods in the country, with products like Kool-Aid, Cocoa Pebbles, Capri Sun and Oreo cookies. But the company’s former general counsel and vice president, Steven C. Parrish, confided that he found it troubling that it was easier for him to quit the company’s cigarettes than its chocolate cookies. “I’m dangerous around a bag of chips or Doritos or Oreos,” he told Mr. Moss. “I’d avoid even opening a bag of Oreos because instead of eating one or two, I would eat half the bag.”
As litigation against tobacco companies gained ground in the 1990s, one of the industry’s defenses was that cigarettes were no more addictive than Twinkies. It may have been on to something. Philip Morris routinely surveyed the public to gather legal and marketing intelligence, Mr. Moss writes, and one particular survey in 1988 asked people to name things that they thought were addictive and then rate them on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the most addictive.
“Smoking was given an 8.5, nearly on par with heroin,” Mr. Moss writes. “But overeating, at 7.3, was not far behind, scoring higher than beer, tranquilizers and sleeping pills. This statistic was used to buttress the company’s argument that cigarettes might not be exactly innocent, but they were a vice on the order of potato chips and, as such, were manageable.”
But processed foods are not tobacco, and many people, including some experts, dismiss the notion that they are addictive. Mr. Moss suggests that this reluctance is in part a result of misconceptions about what addiction entails. For one, a substance does not have to hook everyone for it to be addictive. Studies show that most people who drink or use cocaine do not become dependent. Nor does everyone who smokes or uses painkillers become addicted. It is also the case that the symptoms of addiction can vary from one person to the next and from one drug to another. Painful withdrawals were once considered hallmarks of addiction. But some drugs that we know to be addictive, such as cocaine, would fail to meet that definition because they do not provoke “the body-wrenching havoc” that withdrawal from barbiturates and other addictive drugs can cause.
The American Psychiatric Association now lists 11 criteria that are used to diagnose what it calls a substance use disorder, which can range from mild to severe, depending on how many symptoms a person exhibits. Among those symptoms are cravings, an inability to cut back despite wanting to, and continuing to use the substance despite it causing harm. Mr. Moss said that people who struggle with processed food can try simple strategies to conquer routine cravings, like going for a walk, calling a friend or snacking on healthy alternatives like a handful of nuts. But for some people, more extreme measures may be necessary.