You may have seen the obscene video of the Indonesian toddler addicted to cigarettes. When it first came out, American parents cringed and lambasted the father for introducing his son to cigarettes when the boy was just 18 months old. Would we ever do such a thing?
It’s already happening, but in America it’s not cigarettes, it’s junk food.
A recent Washington University study shows that high-sugar, high-fat, highly processed foods are as addictive as alcohol or cigarettes. Worse yet, children as young as three already recognize and crave common junk-food brands over healthier foods.
We might as well be handing cigarettes and a shot of scotch to our toddlers when we introduce them to junk food.
If television mimics reality, then look out litigators. Junk-food lawsuits may be imminent. In the new NBC television show Harry’s Law, an ambulance-chasing lawyer, Tommy Jefferson (played by Christopher McDonald) petitions for a trial against “the Big Four” fast-food restaurants. His client, an overweight woman, says she is addicted to fast-food fare. Jefferson refers to a series of studies showing the “the right combination of salt, sugar and fat is addictive neurologically.” Just as the judge is ready to throw out the case, he points to the plaintiff’s overweight children and says, “Look at the size of them, Judge … my God.” The judge agrees to let the case move forward and the Big Four agree to pay out rather than take the case to trial.
Pssst ... hey kid, want some junk food?
My God is right. I know that this is a country of free will, free capitalism and free choice, but how much more evidence do we need? The University of Oregon researcher found when very young children are exposed to foods with high levels of sugar, fat and salt they develop a palate, a familiarity and cravings for junk foods. The researchers concluded that junk food is actually influencing children’s taste preferences for junk food at a very early age.
In the study, 108 children were shown pictures of fast food and soda, and asked to decide whether the product was made by Brand A, Brand B, or not offered in fast-food stores. The children who matched the most foods and drinks with their brands were also most likely to prefer sugary, salty foods. “It's amazing to sit down a 3½ or 4 year old and have them get 90 percent right,” says Dr. Bettina Cornwell, a marketing professor at the University of Oregon and co-author of the study.
Former FDA commissioner and author of the book, “The End Of Overeating,” Dr. David Kessler, told Fast Food News Today, the fact that people cannot control their intake of junk food may, in fact, be true because these rich, sweet and fatty foods stimulate the brain to release dopamine. This is the neurotransmitter associated with the pleasure center, and even the thought of eating these foods may trigger the dopamine release process.
These two studies prove that overcoming the obesity crisis may be much harder than realized. Even more troubling: junk food may well be creating a generation of childhood addicts.
Kimberly Lord Stewart is an award-winning investigative food reporter, the former editorial director of Functional Ingredients magazine, and the author of Eating Between the Lines, The Supermarket Shopper’s Guide To The Truth Behind Food Labels.Complete bio.