The Most Addictive Foods (According to Science)

What food is as addictive as drugs? This may seem like a bold statement, but there has been an abundance of research that suggests that processed foods can fire up the “reward circuitry” of our brains 20 times faster than cigarettes, making them fiercely addictive. So what are the most craved foods? The team at How Long to Cook examined the science of food addiction and created this addictive foods infographic to provide answers and spark discussion:

The Most Addictive Foods (According to Science)

What Is the Most Addictive Food According to Science?

According to research conducted at the University of Michigan using the Yale Food Addiction Scale, the most addictive food in the world is pizza, which scored an average of 4.01 among survey participants. Each participant rated various foods on a scale of 1 (not at all addictive) to 7 (extremely addictive). Why is pizza so addictive? Scientists and flavor consultants agree that pizza contains an irresistible combination of processed carbs, fat, and salt, giving it a powerful addictive quality. Erica Schulte, Ph.D., who worked on the original study, stated that pizza’s ingredients “seem to be especially rewarding and do not occur together in foods found in nature … and this may contribute to its association with addictive-like eating behaviors.” Another theory is that pizza would be the ultimate survival food if you were starving; the fat fills you up, the sugar in the dough and sauce provide energy, and the salt is essential for nearly every aspect of a body’s function.

The second most addictive food should come as no surprise — chocolate! Why is chocolate so addictive? The processed sugars, salts, and fats in chocolate are a major reason why chocolate is so addictive. Sweet taste receptors stimulate a dopamine release, which compels consumers to want more. It also contains two neuroactive chemicals, caffeine and theobromine. These interact with the brain’s opiate receptors as well as cause a cascade of neurochemicals in the brain’s pleasure centers.

The third most addictive food is chips! It’s so hard to stop at just a few chips. What makes chips so addictive? Chips contain salt and fat, both highly addictive ingredients. Salt releases dopamine in the brain significantly faster than cigarette smoke — in eight tenths of a second versus ten seconds. The crunchy, crispy sound and feel of them is also innately satisfying because it may subconsciously signify freshness (and therefore being safe to eat) to humans.

Why Are Processed Foods So Addictive?

Why is unhealthy food so addictive? Processed foods fire up the pleasure centers in your brain and trigger a release of feel-good chemicals like dopamine and serotonin, similar to what other addictive substances or behaviors do. This sensation can overpower other signals in the brain, such as the feeling of satiety, which can lead to a vicious cycle of overeating. What causes food addiction? Highly processed foods usually contain abnormally high levels of carbs, fat, salt, sugar, artificial sweeteners, and/or other unnatural substances that the body struggles to process. This causes the body to be flooded with feel-good chemicals, forcing your brain to adjust its receptors over time to accommodate the rush. This leads to needing to consume more of those foods to achieve the same feel-good reaction. This can be aggravated immensely by stress or depression.

Most Addictive Foods

Food and Average Addictiveness Score

Pizza (4.01)

Chocolate (3.73)

Chips (3.73)

Cookies (3.71)

Ice cream (3.68)

French fries (3.60)

Cheeseburgers (3.51)

Soda (not diet) (3.29)

Cake (3.26)

Cheese (3.22)

Bacon (3.03)

Fried chicken (2.97)

Rolls (plain) (2.73)

Popcorn (buttered) (2.64)

Breakfast cereal (2.59)

Gummy candy (2.57)

Steak (2.54)

Muffins (2.50)

Least Addictive Foods

Food and Addictiveness Score

Cucumbers (1.53)

Carrots (1.60)

Beans (no sauce) (1.63)

Apples (1.66)

Brown rice (1.74)

Broccoli (1.74)

Bananas (1.77)

Salmon (1.84)

Corn (no butter or salt) (1.87)

Strawberries (1.88)

Granola bar (1.93)

Water (1.94)

Crackers (plain) (2.07)

Pretzels (2.13)

Chicken breast (2.16)

Eggs (2.18)

Nuts (2.47)


Related: How long to cook a whole turkey and how long to cook a full chicken.

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