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Tastes your brain can’t resist

Junk foods switch on biological mechanisms that are just as hard to fight as recreational drugs.

Before you dismiss my agitation as mere weakness, consider this: to my brain, sugar is akin to cocaine. There is now compelling evidence that foods high in sugar, fat and salt – as most junk foods are – can alter your brain chemistry in the same way as highly addictive drugs such as cocaine and heroin.

The idea, considered fringe just five years ago, is fast becoming a mainstream view among researchers as new studies in humans confirm initial animal findings, and the biological mechanisms that lead to “junk-food addiction” are being revealed. Some say there is now enough data to warrant government regulation of the fast food industry and public health warnings on products that have harmful levels of sugar and fat. One campaigning lawyer claims there could even be enough evidence to mount a legal fight against the fast food industry for knowingly peddling food that is harmful to our health, echoing the lawsuits against the tobacco industry in the 1980s and 90s.

“We have to educate people about how their brains get hijacked by fat, sugar and salt,” says David Kessler, former commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration and now a director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, based in Washington DC. With obesity levels rocketing across the world, it is clear that I am not alone in my love of sweet things, but can it really be as bad as drug addiction?

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