Where Junk Food Cravings Are Born

Last year NPR posed the question: "Why do we seem to relish salty, sweet, high-fat and fried foods?" After all, anybody on the street will tell you they're no good for us. So why do we eat them? Gary Beauchamp, director of Philadelphia's Monell Chemical Senses Center weighs in:

Our human ancestors were largely herbivores, and one of their primary concerns was consuming enough calories.


"Sweet things tend to be calorie-rich and tend to be high in vitamins in the real world," Beauchamp says. "Most or all plant-eating animals have evolved an ability to taste sweet compounds, particularly carbohydrates, and a liking for them."

Likewise, salt is a signal for nutrients such as sodium. As for fat, our cravings become less clear. Some studies suggest people like the buttery texture. Fat is also the richest source of calories. "One way to think about this is that people and animals learn to associate this feel with the feeling of calories in the gut—and that association is what makes these things so attractive," Beauchamp says. He speculates that fatty acids may also enhance the sweetness of sugar and the saltiness of salt.

Similarly, an aversion to bitter foods—including vegetables—may have evolved from the need for early humans to avoid poisonous plants, which often tasted bitter.

Check out the podcast that accompanies the NPR report.

The podcast suggests people have learned to acquire some nasty eating habits: overeating and gobbling up lots of salt and fat to new a few. According to Disease Proof Your Child this is a dangerous combination, especially in young children:

The unnaturally high level of sugar, salt, and artificially heightened flavors in processed (fake) foods will lessen or deaden the sensitivity of the taste buds to more subtle flavors, making natural food taste flat. For example, the higher the salt content of your diet, the more your taste buds lose their ability to taste salt. After your taste has toned down its sensitivity to salt, salty things don't taste so salty and your deadened taste buds have lost the ability to enjoy the subtle flavorings in more delicately flavored natural foods. Vegetables have less flavor, fruit isn't as sweet, and nuts taste like wood after just one month of over stimulation with industrial-designed flavors.


Children eat little real food today. By real food, I mean things that are eaten in their natural state. Is an ice pop real food? Are Kool-Aid or macaroni and cheese? Were these foods eaten by primitive man or other primates? Do they contain a reasonable complement of the trace elements, phytochemicals, minerals, and fibers that nature placed in real food? With so much fake food around, why would we expect our children to choose to eat vegetables, fruits, beans, and nuts, those foods that all the health-giving nutrients?

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Heidi - May 17, 2006 11:37 PM

I state this as a personal observation, not as an answer to "where junk food cravings are born": as I was standing in line at a chekcout recently, I peered at stacks of tubs filled with chocolate covered pretzels, candies, and nuts piled next to the aisle. It occured to me that cravings, at least in part, actually, the internal thought, "ooh, that's so good..." when consuming something, can actually be the satisfaction of a mood craving masked as a taste bud craving. ("ooh, so good" translating to "I feel better now") I suspect that the senses taken through the mouth can be very effective at self-medicating psychological issues. (Okay, so that's not new information!) Perhaps, then, taking us beyond (but carrying along and maintaining) a mere primitive survival impetus behind cravings. I think junk food, if deconstructed, would be revealed as a perfect immediate gratifier for psychological longings. (I don't think this is really new info., either) Like just about any addiction, in my opinion. Thus, when whole, natural food is eaten disappointment can result from the inability of the food to get one "high" like the junk can. Just my thoughts.

Linda - May 18, 2006 8:59 AM

I've noticed that salt is an appetite stimulus! I can be ready for a meal but not ravenous and taste some salt and bam! I'm "hungry." I have really cut down on salt a lot, but have not gotten completely off of it. I read something Dr.F. wrote about the body having adjusted to the "need" for the salt (in regard to heavy sweating from intense athletics), and in that way, one does "feel" better after consuming some sort of salt. The body can also readjust, though, even with the heavy exercise and get all the sodium it needs from foods. I'm almost there! It would be a huge accomplishment if I could go saltless. I've been sugarless for 1 1/2 years now, and I never thought that was possible! So I know it can be done.

Heidi, I understand that "high" from junk; for me, it was sugar. It took various forms, usually high-carb foods like potatoes and breads.

Mirine - May 18, 2006 3:39 PM

Where junk food cravings are born are actually shortly after birth for a large portion of children all over the world, especially in developed countries like the US and UK. Poor breastfeeding rates, which are still less than optimalall over the planet, and the feeding of artificial baby milk is a direct contributer to the bland, sweet and salty taste and diet preferences of children. They are started on hydrogenated oils, animal proteins and fats and high-fructose laden infant formula and given the same sweet fat meal 8 times per day for months until they transition to processed infant cereals ( weeks after birth for many unfortunate kids).
Breastmilk changes flavor throughout the meal, contains human-specific ingredients and helps to prevent obesity.
There are numerous studies to show that a toddler who was or still is breastfed has a better diet, is better at self-regulating intake, and enjoys flavor changes.

Linda - May 19, 2006 9:18 AM

I've read there are numerous benefits to breastfeeding as well.
There are many children breastfed up to 5 years old.
Dr. Fuhrman, do you think that is beneficial or is there a general cutoff age in between?

victor - April 9, 2007 4:20 PM

this is very good

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