As discussed at length in the book “The Obese Brain”, the concept of “food addiction” is not new. However, in recent years, this idea has aroused ever greater interest in the scientific community and subsequently given rise to a number of studies. Though it’s still too early to draw any definitive conclusions from those studies with a minimum degree of rigour, there is no doubt that this is a source of highly attractive hypotheses. So... keep a close eye on how this research develops.
On this subject, one issue which has still to be adequately addressed is the lack of studies focused on specific foods (as opposed to individual components) and on identifying symptoms similar to those found in addictions, especially those related to one or another of the two main characteristics of addiction: uncontrolled and excessive consumption (the equivalent of "abuse" in the case of substances) and the intense need to consume every so often and at regular intervals (the equivalent of "dependence"). The nearest to this has been the odd research study conducted in relation to the second of these two aspects, more specifically in relation to the craving some people regularly feel to eat certain foods.
The first such study, "Food Cravings in College Population", dates back to 1991. In this study, experts from Canada asked one thousand young people about the foods that triggered this feeling in them. 97% of the women and 68% of the men who answered the question said that they experienced such cravings to varying degrees of intensity and frequency. In this respect, the following were the most mentioned foods (in descending order):
- Snacks (appetizers) and other savoury foods
- Sweets and desserts
- Red meat and chicken
- Bread and pasta
- Yakiniku (grilled meat)
- Udon (noodles)
- Nigiri Zushi (rice and fish)
- "The experience of food craving: a prospective investigation in healthy women" (1994). A small-size study on 25 people. In first place, chocolate and sweet foods containing chocolate (confectionery, cakes, pastries, etc.); in second place, sweet foods in general; in third place, cereal products (biscuits, cakes, pastries, etc.); and in fourth place, savoury foods (crisps, snacks, etc.).
- "Food Liking and Craving: A Cross-cultural Approach" (1999). The same perspective was used to analyse the comparative preferences of American and Spanish people. Though certain differences were identified between the two collectives (predictable taking into account their different eating habits), the two food types which clearly stood out from the rest were the very sweet and the very savoury, followed some way behind by chocolate and meat, fish and egg dishes.
As you can see, though there is little evidence to date, it seems that these foods are normally intensely flavoured (made so by adding a large quantity of sugar or salt) and rich in refined carbohydrates and fats. All of which would indicate that pastries and biscuits, sweets, fast food and savoury snacks and appetizers have the dubious honour of being the most craved foods.
As for the reasons why these foods are so desired and the possibility of labelling them as “addictive”... well, that’s a complex issue best left as a subject for future posts. In any case, further detailed information on this subject can be found in "The Obese Brain".