How do you transform something as innocent and flimsy as a wet noodle into something evil and hazardous? Why, lacing it with opium, of course. That's what the proprietor of a noodle shop in the Shaanxi province in China was doing to make his dishes irresistible. The shop owner ground up poppy plant (from which opium is derived) and sprinkled it like fairy dust into his bowls. Mmm, tastes like addiction.
Most countries, America included, frown upon food vendors infusing their offerings with illegal drugs. And yet they have no problem with Food Industry mega-corporations injecting their processed goods with all kinds of additives meant to enhance flavor and get you addicted. Here's a look at some of the major culprits that might be turning us all into junk food junkies.
Sugar, either in the form of cane sugar or high fructose corn syrup, has been added to almost every processed food you eat. Even stuff like deli meat and edible panties. When you ingest sugar, your brain releases chemicals called opioids and dopamine — which in turn give you that "sugar high." Funnily enough, these are the same two chemicals that get triggered when someone snorts a line of cocaine or injects a serum of heroin.
When taken in moderation, sugar doesn't come near the damaging neurological effects of blow or smack. The problem, however, is that makers of processed foods more often than not add an extraordinary amount of sugar to their products. Francesco Rinaldi pasta sauce contains almost 3 entire tablespoons of sugar per serving. Compare this to a Food TV recipe for traditional Marinara Sauce which only has, oh wait, 0 tablespoons of sugar.
Casein is a naturally occurring protein found in dairy products like cheese and milk. When the body breaks down casein, the chemical releases another opioid called casomorphin (sounds a little like morphine, tastes a little like morphine). Human brains go gaga for food and drink with high amounts of this stuff.
However, food manufacturers who really want to get you hooked add casein to a whole list of foods where it shouldn't be. Fast food restaurants are great at this: they put casein in everything from burgers, to cheese, to chicken fingers. Casein is also in your nutrition bars and breath mints.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), though not always a reliable source of information, recommends people consume no more than 2,300 milligrams of salt a day. Except that the average American takes in 3,400 milligrams. Why might this be the case?
Because salt, like most everything on this list, has also been found to activate the same opioid centers in the brain that hard drugs do. If you eat enough salt, you can get addicted to it. Walter White could have cooked up chunks of table salt and his customers might never have noticed the difference.
No doubt this logic is behind why so many food companies load up their products with salt. One serving of Raisin Bran cereal has 350mg of sodium, which is 15% of the daily-recommended quantity, but more than double what other cereals contain.
When you add hydrogen to vegetable oil, you get trans fats. It is an artificial process that was toyed around with in the 1890s, and has since come into common practice (kind of the opposite of witchcraft). However, like witchcraft, trans fats are looked at with a justified degree of scrutiny. Because trans fats will kill you...eventually. If you're into that sort of thing, check out margarine, vegetable shortening, crackers, sausage, and some breads —these are loaded with trans fats.
When scientists gave rats injections of trans fats, they noticed that the junk food diet actually broke down the natural processes of the rodents' brains. What's more, rats who fed on trans-fat rich foods ate twice as much as those in the healthy control group. That could be because trans fats activate the same pleasure centers in the brain that coke and heroin. Very, very, interesting.
Some say the most tragic thing about the Boston Tea Party of 1773 was the loss of so much caffeine that could have been used to give so many addicted Americans their fix. Just shameful. The thing is that caffeine, the chemical in coffee and even chocolate, can be just as addictive as cigarettes and coke.
The thing with caffeine is not only is it addictive on its own, but it can stimulate the brain to want more addictive things. In that way it's sort of a gateway drug. Moreover, the Waverly Health Center in the US recommends we limit our caffeine intake to 250 milligrams a day. But Americans are up to 300 milligrams on average.
Not only are we drinking more naturally caffeinated beverages like coffee, and eating more foods like chocolate, but we're also eating a lot of processed foods with caffeine additives. These include energy drinks like Monster (you won't find a can of that neon stuff in nature) and Morning Spark Oatmeal, which sounds like it will electrocute you.
There's a lot of controversy surrounding monosodium glutamate (MSG), the magical taste enhancer that almost every Chinese restaurant this side of the Pacific Ocean has used in their kitchen. Now a lot of places will advertise that they do not cook with the additive. The research is divided on whether MSG actually caused the "hangover"-like symptoms many said they experienced after eating foods that contained it.
But one study found that, regardless of the reported symptoms, the brain loves loves loves MSG, like, on an addictive level. So not only does MSG enhance umami flavors — like Ramen needs to taste any better — but it also hooks you to the taste. Bam!
Yeah, that noodle vendor probably shouldn't have served his meals with a side of opium. That was wrong. But take a step back and think just how many drugs our own nation's food conglomerates have us hooked on. We may not all be chasing the dragon, but we sure do get cranky without that 4th cup of coffee. Have you ever heard of someone suffering withdrawal from tomatoes?