Likening Hamburgers to Heroin Is a Dopey Comparison

New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman started off his Saturday column with promise. He acknowledged that it’s “just plain wrong” to assume that fast food is cheaper than homecooked healthy meals – a fact we’ve pointed out as well, even if picking up dinner is occasionally more convenient for busy families. But just when he starts to make some (common) sense, he blows it by insisting the problem with snack foods isn’t their affordability, it’s the risk they pose for so-called “food addiction.”

Bittman hints that snack foods’ tastiness is the result of a vast conspiracy on the part of food companies rather than evidence of taste preferences on the part of consumers:

[T]he engineering behind hyperprocessed food makes it virtually addictive. A 2009 study by the Scripps Research Institute indicates that overconsumption of fast food “triggers addiction-like neuroaddictive responses” in the brain, making it harder to trigger the release of dopamine. In other words the more fast food we eat, the more we need to give us pleasure; thus the report suggests that the same mechanisms underlie drug addiction and obesity.

We’re sorry, but what a pile of (processed) bologna.

That Scripps study confuses a few key points about addiction. Namely, it trivializes real physiological addiction by likening cookies to cocaine. No one goes into withdrawal (including but not limited to insomnia, aches and pains, vomiting, the shakes, and a host of other unpleasant symptoms) if they go a day or two without French fries or pizza. Yet Bittman is deliberately using inflammatory language to send his readers into a panic about getting hooked on hamburgers.

We’re not denying that food produces a physical need in living beings, but those who go without it entirely experience starvation, not withdrawal. Confusing the two is not an effective way to convince people to choose healthier meals, though it is a novel way of pursuing restrictive regulations that limit consumer choice in supermarkets and drive-thrus (while whetting the appetites of trial lawyers). And somehow we think that’s more along the lines of what Bittman is truly getting at with his hyperbole.

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