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Commentary: Are Pizza and Other Processed Foods Made to be Addictive?

By Casey Thaler, B.A., NASM-CPT, FNS
November 16, 2019
Commentary: Are Pizza and Other Processed Foods Made to be Addictive? image

Photo by Alan Hardman on Unsplash

While there are many popular foods in America, studies have shown that the classic pizza is the most popular. It has had a huge impact on both our dietary habits and our waistlines. [1] Interestingly, pizza has also been studied to be most associated with indicators of addiction. [2] A report by CNN showed that there is a very precise mechanism at play behind the addictive nature of everyone’s favorite carbohydrate source. Not surprisingly, it’s salt, sugar, and fat—perfectly proportioned—that makes pizza so impossible to resist. [3-7]

As I have noted before in previous articles, food addiction is very real, and very specific. [8-15] That is to say, it is directly related to the fact that the large majority of our modern diet is processed food. But to understand why food addiction is so common today, we must dive into what exactly the term "processed food" means. Simply, it’s food made entirely by humans. Processed foods do not exist in nature; in fact, it’s almost impossible to be truly addicted to any food found in nature. This is not an accident. This is why low-carb cookbooks that focus on real foods tend to help many with weight loss (this is certainly the feedback my cookbook has gotten).

But processed food works differently. As many scientific researchers have noted, food chemists are paid to make some foods irresistible. [16-17] And when I say irresistible, it’s a polite way of saying addictive. That’s quite shocking to read, but not if you’ve been paying attention to big food companies for the last 100 years. Slowly but surely, food manufacturers have increased the amount of sugar, caffeine, salt, fat, and calories in foods. [18] That decision is a cold, economic one, backed by decades of research.

Big food executives know that the more consumers purchase and consume their food, the better off they will be. [19] This means that ramping up the addictiveness is essentially their only long-term option to continue to make higher profits. However, there is a positive side: Due to consumers' changing habits (largely due to new ideas like The Paleo Diet®) and the subsequent increase in demand for healthier foods, big food companies have started to modify what they offer. From a cynical perspective, it seems they are only doing so because there is now money to be made in this segment of the market. Nevertheless, they are providing more nutritious fare.

If one doubts this narrative, all you need to do is take a look at internal documents from soda companies, which call the consumers who drink their products the most "heavy users." [20] This is the same term that's used to refer to drug addicts. This is not a compliment, and it’s not an accident. Many executives from Big Tobacco made the leap to the food industry and brought with them deceptive advertising methods and a penchant for unhealthy products. But because addictive, sugary, and obesity-causing food is only chronically toxic, not acutely toxic, it is increasingly difficult to provide meaningful regulation.

The brain's amygdala is the biological center for food addiction. In this portion of the brain, feelings of happiness are triggered when the right combination and proportions of certain macronutrients are consumed. [21] It is also the area that helps us determine when foods are too cheesy, too salty, or too sugary. Food chemists have figured out how to make foods most palatable and, thus, most addictive along this spectrum of taste. They refer to it as the "bliss point." [22] If this sounds unsettling, it is.

If you need help reigning in your doughnut consumption, consider the hundreds of lab tests that were performed on that doughnut before it was brought to market. Scientists determined precisely how much sugar to include, for the sole purpose of making you crave another one. This brings us to the addictive and disturbing properties of sugar. It’s simply a white poison, in many respects—albeit one that acts slowly and lacks potency. [23] Nonetheless, it has many disturbing biochemical similarities to alcohol, which is a much more acute toxin. [24] The more sugar we consume, the more we crave it. If we withdraw from sugar, there are withdrawal symptoms. [25]

In fact, some studies have shown that cookies are potentially more addictive than cocaine. [26] While the comparison isn't particularly fair, one thing is certain: there's a societal acceptance of both obesity and cookies, whereas cocaine is a social stigma. Yes, the nature of our society makes it okay to eat half of a pizza in one sitting, but not okay to ingest addictive drugs. The truth is that both of these are addictions. It has been interesting to see the obesity pandemic balloon to enormous heights, and simultaneously see the "body positivity" movement take off. [27]

While I have no issue with people having self-esteem, as a personal trainer and nutritionist I’m much more concerned with what obesity is doing to the client’s long-term health. Obesity is, quite literally, deadly.

Which brings us back to that classic slice of pizza.

Let's break it down and see just how addictive it, as an example of the modern Western diet, can be. Cheese by itself has been shown to be addictive. Add to that bread, which is also addictive. Then throw in some sugar (via sauce) for good measure. It’s the perfect mixture of pleasure for our amygdala.

And let's not forget the volume of salt in pizza. This is another significant factor in its addictiveness. [28] The CNN report explained how a top sensory scientist has helped companies bring more addictive qualities to pizza, "enhancing" it through food science, to make us want to consumer more of it.

If this sounds a little bit like Darth Vader using the force (i.e. science) for the dark side, you’re right. So, the next time you sit down to have a slice of pizza, think long and hard about how much science went into making it irresistible.


  1. Devine CM, Nelson JA, Chin N, Dozier A, Fernandez ID. "Pizza is cheaper than salad": assessing workers' views for an environmental food intervention. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2007;15 Suppl 1:57S-68S.
  2. Schulte EM, Avena NM, Gearhardt AN. Which foods may be addictive? The roles of processing, fat content, and glycemic load. PLoS ONE. 2015;10(2):e0117959.
  3. Schulte EM, Avena NM, Gearhardt AN. Which foods may be addictive? The roles of processing, fat content, and glycemic load. PLoS ONE. 2015;10(2):e0117959.
  4. Koob GF, Volkow ND. Neurobiology of addiction: a neurocircuitry analysis. Lancet Psychiatry. 2016;3(8):760-73.
  5. Volkow ND, Morales M. The Brain on Drugs: From Reward to Addiction. Cell. 2015;162(4):712-25.
  6. Volkow ND, Wise RA, Baler R. The dopamine motive system: implications for drug and food addiction. Nat Rev Neurosci. 2017;18(12):741-752.
  7. Volkow ND, Wang GJ, Tomasi D, Baler RD. Obesity and addiction: neurobiological overlaps. Obes Rev. 2013;14(1):2-18.
  8. Mies GW, Treur JL, Larsen JK, Halberstadt J, Pasman JA, Vink JM. The prevalence of food addiction in a large sample of adolescents and its association with addictive substances. Appetite. 2017;118:97-105.
  9. Ayaz A, Nergiz-unal R, Dedebayraktar D, et al. How does food addiction influence dietary intake profile?. PLoS ONE. 2018;13(4):e0195541.
  10. Novelle MG, Diéguez C. Food Addiction and Binge Eating: Lessons Learned from Animal Models. Nutrients. 2018;10(1)
  11. Eördögh E, Hoyer M, Szeleczky G. [Food Addiction as a new behavioral addiction]. Psychiatr Hung. 2016;31(3):248-255.
  12. Ziauddeen H, Fletcher PC. Is food addiction a valid and useful concept?. Obes Rev. 2013;14(1):19-28.
  13. Gordon EL, Ariel-donges AH, Bauman V, Merlo LJ. What Is the Evidence for "Food Addiction?" A Systematic Review. Nutrients. 2018;10(4)
  14. Gordon EL, Ariel-donges AH, Bauman V, Merlo LJ. What Is the Evidence for "Food Addiction?" A Systematic Review. Nutrients. 2018;10(4)
  15. Volkow ND, Wang GJ, Tomasi D, Baler RD. Obesity and addiction: neurobiological overlaps. Obes Rev. 2013;14(1):2-18.
  16. Penzenstadler L, Soares C, Karila L, Khazaal Y. Systematic Review of Food Addiction as Measured With the Yale Food Addiction Scale: Implications for the Food Addiction Construct. Curr Neuropharmacol. 2018;
  17. Parylak SL, Koob GF, Zorrilla EP. The dark side of food addiction. Physiol Behav. 2011;104(1):149-56.
  18. Avena NM, Rada P, Hoebel BG. Sugar and fat bingeing have notable differences in addictive-like behavior. J Nutr. 2009;139(3):623-8.
  19. Brownell KD, Warner KE. The perils of ignoring history: Big Tobacco played dirty and millions died. How similar is Big Food?. Milbank Q. 2009;87(1):259-94.
  20. Vartanian LR, Schwartz MB, Brownell KD. Effects of soft drink consumption on nutrition and health: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Am J Public Health. 2007;97(4):667-75.
  21. Moore CF, Sabino V, Koob GF, Cottone P. Neuroscience of Compulsive Eating Behavior. Front Neurosci. 2017;11:469.
  22. Spence C, Okajima K, Cheok AD, Petit O, Michel C. Eating with our eyes: From visual hunger to digital satiation. Brain Cogn. 2016;110:53-63.
  23. Stanhope KL. Sugar consumption, metabolic disease and obesity: The state of the controversy. Crit Rev Clin Lab Sci. 2016;53(1):52-67.
  24. Manzo-avalos S, Saavedra-molina A. Cellular and mitochondrial effects of alcohol consumption. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2010;7(12):4281-304.
  25. Mangabeira V, Garcia-mijares M, Silva MT. Sugar withdrawal and differential reinforcement of low rate (DRL) performance in rats. Physiol Behav. 2015;139:468-73.
  26. Lenoir M, Serre F, Cantin L, Ahmed SH. Intense sweetness surpasses cocaine reward. PLoS ONE. 2007;2(8):e698.
  27. Meldrum DR, Morris MA, Gambone JC. Obesity pandemic: causes, consequences, and solutions-but do we have the will?. Fertil Steril. 2017;107(4):833-839.
  28. Tekol Y. Salt addiction: a different kind of drug addiction. Med Hypotheses. 2006;67(5):1233-4.

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