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What Makes Certain Foods Addictive?

As a human being of adult age without the responsibilities of having to take care of another human being of child age, I'm asked quite often what foods I eat. This can be for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or any of the micro-meals in between. Ostensibly, this is a worthwhile question, seeing as I should have a multitude of flavors and dishes I'd want to try during any given meal. In reality, it's an unncecessary question.

The answer is pizza, and always will be.

I am not alone. According to a 2011 study, pizza is the second most popular food in the world. And now, nearly half-a-decade later, we have a pretty good reason why: Pizza is one of the most addictive foods ever.

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The findings come courtesy of a study published in PLOS One back in February, the first of its kind. The other "most addictive" items on the list are pretty much what you'd expect: french fries, chocolate, potato chips, ice cream, cake, and soda. Pizza, though, was numero uno.

The study worked like so: Researchers at the University of Michigan took two groups of people (120 undergrads and then 384 adults), gave them 35 different foods, and asked them whether they could have "problems controlling how much they ate of each one." After they crunched the numbers, they found that pizza was the most "addictive" food. Fruits and veggies were way at the bottom of the list.

So, what's going on here? Why do our bodies enjoy one kind of food to the point where we have difficulty in ceasing to eat them, and not for others?

Researchers believe it has something to do with the "glycemic load" -- or, GL for short -- of a food. Essentially, GL is the measurement of how quickly the carbohydrates in a food are absorbed into our bodies. When that happens, a person's blood glucose levels raise dramatically. The higher the load, the stronger the hit, the more addictive the food's going to be.

"We found that people who indicated experiencing symptoms of food addiction reported the most problems with foods with a high GL, where the refined carbs hit the system in a rapid, rewarding manner," wrote Erica Schulte, lead author of the study, in an email. "It may be that individuals who consume food in an addictive manner find the blood sugar spike more rewarding than those who don't report addictive-like eating."

But the findings don't stop there. See, there's a difference between the addictive qualities of high-fat foods that are processed, and high-fat foods that are unprocessed.

"Foods that were highly processed with a high GL, but without added fat like soda, pretzels, and gummy candy tended to show up in the middle of our ranking lists," Schulte wrote. The ones with added fat, however, were at the top of the list. "This further suggests that there may be a spectrum of 'addictive' potential among foods, with the combination of added fat and refined carbs being the most elevated."

That slight difference between processed and unprocessed foods is a a big deal in terms of the nefarious activities it suggests. "In a similar manner that drugs are processed to increase their addictive potential," she writes, "this study provides insight that highly processed foods may be intentionally manufactured to be particularly rewarding through the addition of fat and refined carbohydrates (like white flour and sugar)."

There's a key point in there I'd like you pick up on: "Intentional manufactured." There's another key point in there, too: "Similar manner that drugs are processed." In short: Makers of processed foods are -- quite possibly -- using the same tactics as manufacturers of illegal drugs, but the dosage they're upping are fat and refined carbs. And they're doing so because, frankly, it works.

Now, this is nothing new in terms of a selling product on the open market. It's every company's dream to have a product their customers simply cannot live without. But the manufacturers of processed foods differ from products like cleaning supplies or cars because, built into them, is a bonus feature that makes it literally possible to make their product addiction-forming.

If you were in the processed food industry, and tasked to make as much money for your shareholders, and encouraged to make the food more addictive, what would you do?

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