Why is the world so cruel!? Have you ever had a donut? It’s unreal how good they taste. It’s a shame all of these healthy foods that people say we shouldn’t be eating all of the time don’t taste a bit better. When you’re staring down some carrot sticks and a candy bar, your brain is telling you to eat the carrots, but your stomach is begging you to go for the chocolate.
Why do unhealthy foods have to taste so good? Salt, sugar, and fat are three ingredients guaranteed to make food taste good, so food manufacturers and your favorite restaurants infuse their foods with an overabundance of these ingredients to keep you coming back for more.
So if you’ve been feeling like a junk food junkie, don’t beat yourself up. Your favorite salty chips or mile-high cheesecake is engineered to be irresistible. Once you realize how these unhealthy foods are made, why they taste so good, and how much money is spent on making them cheaper and tastier, you’ll know what steep odds you’re up against.
For some people, understanding where these foods come from, what goes into making them, and why they taste so good helps us make better decisions around what foods we buy and eat. Here’s some information on the evolution of modern food and why all of those packaged snacks taste so amazing!
What Makes Food Unhealthy?
Junk food wouldn’t be junk food if it didn’t taste so darned good. People wouldn’t struggle with their weight and other health issues if candy tasted bad. You don’t even need to go that far. If chips were a bit less salty and brownies weren’t so moist and sweet, people wouldn’t eat as many of them!
Three main things make foods taste good: salt, sugar, and fat. These ingredients trigger an emotional response in the brain that is overwhelmingly positive. You feel better when you’re eating them, and it makes you crave even more.
Salt adds intense flavor to whatever it’s on, so food producers make snacks, frozen pizzas, and even things like bread way saltier than they need to be.
Have you ever tried to make something like pizza at home and it comes out tasting….dull? The reason is salt! You’re probably adding just a fraction of the salt in processed foods that you love. The difference between the food you make at home and the stuff that’s in a restaurant often comes down to salt levels.
The same goes for sugar. Modern food manufacturers are adding more sugar into their products than ever. Even into savory foods. Pasta sauce, bread, cornbread, and other savory foods have a lot of sugar. They enhance the flavor and kick off that positive brain response to keep you eating more.
When it comes to flavor and texture, it’s tough to beat fat. Adding fat to dishes, most often in the form of butter and oils, is something chefs and food companies have been doing forever.
Want to know why you weigh so much more after a trip to your favorite restaurant? Even if you think you ate relatively well, there were likely loads of butter on whatever you were having.
Unhealthy Makes Economic Sense
Food companies that make unhealthy snacks, prepared meals, and other foods want you to be happy while you’re eating what they make, and they want you to keep buying what they have to offer.
It’s hard to find a company out there selling truly healthy foods that is as successful as brands like Nabisco and Nestle. “It might not taste as good, but it’s good for you” isn’t exactly a winning tagline you’ll see on a billboard or in your grocery store aisle.
All you have to do is take a trip down the cereal aisle and see how many sugary cereals there are compared to the healthy cereals to know who is winning the war for consumers’ dollars.
Food companies want to make money, and they know what works. They make higher margins on processed carbohydrates that are easy to grow and make. They have longer shelf lives and they cost less to produce. Take a cheaper ingredient, add some coloring to make it look cool, then pump it full of salt, sugar, and fat, and you’ve got a winning combo.
A lot of fresh foods have a much shorter shelf-life. They need more water and attention to grow, and shipping them often requires refrigeration. The bottom line, it’s harder to make money on healthy food that doesn’t have preservatives, artificial coloring, etc., so companies focus on what works.
The Evolutionary Response to Modern Unhealthy Foods
The foods we eat have undergone a massive shift in just a short amount of time. Humans, in some form or another, have existed for millions of years. We ate vegetables plain, and even when meat came along with the discovery of fire, it wasn’t exactly like the delicious beef jerky you can find on any gas station rack these days. Food was bland.
The body, however, needs salt to survive, so humans developed a craving for salt, and our minds push us to eat as much as we can because traditionally it’s been so hard to find.
The same goes for energy sources. You don’t get a lot of calories from foods like celery, spinach, and broccoli. Yes, they give you a lot of nutrients, but you have to eat a lot of vegetables to get the same calories as you would from eating a pop tart.
The body is always looking to store as much energy as possible for those times when food isn’t readily available. That’s why we have such a strong response to sugar and fat.
Sugar and fat offer a lot of calories in small packages. The body converts them to fat to store for later use.
Now, though, we have much more reliable food sources, and fewer people are going hungry for days until their next substantial meal. The body, though, hasn’t quite caught up yet. It’s telling you to keep eating those brownies because we don’t know if we’ll have anything good to eat tomorrow.
Training Our Brains to Be More Responsible With Unhealthy Foods
Come on, if you’ve never had a beautiful cupcake made at a high-end artisan bakery, it’s tough to say you’ve really lived. Eating unhealthy foods is fun, and can be a terrific reward for people who have done something great.
Eating at a nice restaurant is a lovely way to celebrate graduating from school, a new job, or a promotion. We eat unhealthy foods at weddings, birthdays, and on the holidays. People associate unhealthy foods with some of our lives’ best memories.
The key, as with most things in life, is moderation. We need to recognize unhealthy foods and foods that taste incredible for what they are. They’re something that should be enjoyed sparingly, and should not make up the majority of our diets.
This can be hard to do in our hectic world when we’re running around at work and scrambling to get lunches ready for school. The scale at which food is made and delivered is also much bigger now, and fast, shelf-stable unhealthy foods are an easy option. Just look at the foods they’re serving at schools and you’ll see the economies of scale at work.
What we need to do is make unhealthy foods like sweets, chips, fries, cakes, and other similar items a treat instead of mainstays. This is the challenge everyone who wants to be more conscious of what they’re eating has to face.
Finding ways to insert more whole foods with less sugar, salt, and fat, can take more time and cost more money, but it’s worth it if you’re concerned with your health.
So stop beating yourself up for wanting another cookie. There are reasons why you’re craving it. Just make it an occasional treat instead of any everyday thing.