In the dismal science of economics, the Bliss Point refers to a quantity of consumption where any further increase would make the consumer less satisfied.
In the equally dismal contemporary science of food, Bliss Point is the amount of an ingredient such as salt, sugar, or fat which optimizes palatability, and where any further increase in salt, sugar or fat would make the food less palatable.
In the relatively upbeat funeral business, the Bliss Point would be that societal stage where the maximal numbers of funerals are balanced by the numbers of survivors able to pay for them. We have already passed that point, as our health prospects, life expectancy and over-leveraged economies are simultaneously in decline.
If there is one person more responsible than any other for today’s tidal waves of obesity, diabetes, chronic illness and spiralling health care costs, I believe that person is the former food scientist Dr Howard Moskowitz.
Howard’s work unwittingly contributed to more early and avoidable death than any other 20th century figure, but he and his colleagues got away with it because where better known mass-murderers used central banks and armies, the scientists wielded clipboards and spreadsheets.
A psychologist and market researcher (the two disciplines overlap considerably), Howard developed the concept of bliss point in the food sector. This rapidly became integral to the development and onward march of ultra-processed, industrial food.
Recipes had their variables independently tweaked until they reached an acme of tastiness. Over time the pen and clipboard were replaced by the PET-CT scanner, and with nowhere to hide, test subjects were subjected to volleys of ultra-processed samples until pleasure centres in the hypothalamus showed maximal activity; specifically in the nucleus accumbens, which receives dopaminergic input from the hippocampal VTA where resilience and happiness, of a sort, are located.
The science of food addiction came of age, the food multinationals became dope peddlers and a terrible beauty was born. Rough beasts such as Cherry Vanilla Dr Pepper, Pringles Baconators and the deep-fried chicken waffle drizzled with maple syrup were let loose upon an unsuspecting and vulnerable public.
Like broody gulls slipped Tinbergen’s oversize fake eggs, a generation of consumers was so super-stimulated they forgot the simple pleasure of normal foods, they increasingly forgot how to cook and turned increasingly to gastroporn. They became fatter and sicker, and were enabled in this process by the designers and manufacturers of automobiles, information technology and the built environment.
In Catalonia, where futures are forged, an architect with the standard-issue set of post-modernist tropes came up with the kitchenless house. In California, where the future is visibly disintegrating, some of these were actually constructed; smart houses for stupid people, houses with freezers and microwaves but nowhere to cook because we have, after all, emancipated ourselves from cooking and ‘the sexual politics embedded in the traditional kitchen’. (As an enthusiastic and unapologetically masculine cook, I take that sort of thing with a pinch of pink Himalayan salt.)
Garnish this mix with the overwheening power of lobbying groups, the cooption of regulatory agencies and the corruption of politicians, and voila; the table is set with a dizzying array of cheap, toxic and deliciously more’ish ultra-processed packaged foods. We can’t get enough of them.
Ultra-processed foods now account for half or more of calorific intake in many parts of the world. In the international eat-yourself-to-death marathon North Americans take the gold with ultra-processed foods accounting for 60% of their daily calories (1). The plucky Brits win silver at 57% (2) and down under, the Ockers take bronze with 53% (3). There are socioeconomic groups in other countries such as Brazil and Mexico which score in this range (4, 5) but their national averages are bought down by significant numbers of citizens who cling irrationally to their traditional ways and/or cannot afford more than a subsistence diet.
As ultra-processed food consumption increases, intakes of protein, fiber, phytonutrients and potassium fall while intakes of sugars, starches, total fats, saturated fats, omega 6 fatty acids and sodium rise (ie 6-8). This is a sure-fire recipe for falling health (9,10), life expectancy (11, 12), intelligence (13), fertility (14) and eventually, inevitably, ongoing global population reduction (15).
The manufacturers know we know these foods are not healthy, so they festoon their packaging with buzzwords such as low fat, zero cholesterol, gluten-free, real fruit, energy and fortified to reduce the guilt we feel when buying their industrial products. They know we are vulnerable to pester power, so they use the latest kiddie character imagery in cross-licensing deals with the TV companies and film studios. They got us surrounded.
And, they have us by the hippocampus. This is how they can lead us to the sugar water and make us drink too.
The same ultra-processed foods which trigger those pleasure centres in the nucleus accumbens degrade hippocampal structures including the VTA (16- 22). This means that with each and every ultra-processed hit to the NA, resilience and resting mood state flatten a little further, more and more hits to the NA are required to avoid dysphoria, and appetite controls are loosened (23). Each moment of guilty pleasure leaves us imperceptibly unhappier; an equation which, being nationally Scottish and culturally Jewish, I am innately familiar with.
These are the wheels and levers of habituation and addiction, and important new research shows that the process develops after a very short period of eating junk food (23). The normal workings of the hippocampus, which aid satiation by suppressing the memory of how good recently eaten food tasted, are blocked. After only 7 days of high-sugar and high-fat meals and snacks, sophisticated testing methods revealed that the test subjects developed cravings for more of the same even when they were not hungry. They also showed impaired cognition, thus creating the perfect marketing feedback loop. Eat more junk, crave more junk, forget just how bad that junk made you feel (24, 25), eat more junk …
When consumed over longer periods, this kind of diet disrupts the hippocampus so that the normal relationship between physiological state and appetite for ultra-processed foods is broken, meaning that people reach for the biscuit or candy bar even when they are not at all hungry (26). If consumed over decades, the junk food diet is so destructive that the hippocampus physically shrinks (27).
These adverse effects can be explained in terms of increased inflammation and reduced synaptic formation in the hippocampus (28-31) and other forebrain areas, likely including the frontal lobes where executive decisions about what and how much to eat (and many other things) are made, and where self-image, motivation and impulse control are partially located. The gut / brain connection is playing role here too (31), with diet-induced dysbiosis linking to microglial activation and an increased risk of neurodegenerative disease in later life; so these ultra-processed foods are a gift (in the German sense) that keeps on giving.
On a more positive note, the same study that showed that junk food caused such rapid behavioural and cognitive changes (23), discovered that these short-term changes could be reversed almost equally rapidly. This dove-tails with anecdotal evidence shared with me by bariatricians at a weight loss clinic in the mid-West, where they adopted treatment methods from other addiction models and found that 12 days of total abstinence from junk food is usually enough to break the craving / cramming / craving cycle. Even longer-term hippocampal damage may be partly remediable, possibly by using plasma transfusions from young people (32).
Given current demographic trends and the on-going transformation of work and employment, selling plasma to the elderly could be a lifeline for youngsters who have been rendered unemployable by junk food; at least, until the neuroregenerative factors in young plasma have been characterised and synthesised. Ambrosia, the Silicon Valley start-up that sold young plasma at $8,000 / litre to the rich and gullible was closed down by the FDA last year, but there are persistent rumours of continuing black-market operations in this space. There are latter-day vampires among us.
Back to firmer ground.
The evidence base showing that ultra-processed foods damage our physical and mental health has been accumulating for years, and the latest papers, which prove that they are also addictive, provide the smoking gun. It is time to bring the multinational food industry under control, as was done with the tobacco industry.
If our bought and paid for politicians won’t do it we must, and if not for ourselves then for our children, and their children.
Considering that ultra-processed foods increase the numbers of babies with low birth weight and poor body composition (33, 34), and that these babies will go on to suffer worse health in their turn (35), we should start shielding our most vulnerable citizens from predatory and paedophobic marketeers. We need to become vampire hunters. Given the huge impact of advertising on children’s brain activity and subsequent food preferences (36), a campaign to ban ALL advertising of ultra-processed foods aimed at children would help break the chains of food addiction in the next generation, at least.
- Steele EM, Baraldi LG, da Costa Louzada ML, Moubarac JC, Mozaffarian D, Monteiro CA. Ultra-processed foods and added sugars in the US diet: evidence from a nationally representative cross-sectional study. BMJ open. 2016 Jan 1;6(3): 3009892
- Rauber F, da Costa Louzada ML, Steele EM, Millett C, Monteiro CA, Levy RB. Ultra-Processed Food Consumption and Chronic Non-Communicable Diseases-Related Dietary Nutrient Profile in the UK (2008⁻2014). Nutrients. 2018 May 9;10(5):587.
- Machado PP, Steele EM, Louzada MLDC, Levy RB, Rangan A, Woods J, Gill T, Scrinis G, Monteiro CA. Ultra-processed food consumption drives excessive free sugar intake among all age groups in Australia. Eur J Nutr. 2019 Nov 1. doi: 10.1007/s00394-019-02125-y.
- Marrón-Ponce JA, Flores M, Cediel G, Monteiro CA, Batis C. Associations between Consumption of Ultra-Processed Foods and Intake of Nutrients Related to Chronic Non-Communicable Diseases in Mexico. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2019 Nov;119(11):1852-1865.
- Louzada MLDC, Ricardo CZ, Steele EM, Levy RB, Cannon G, Monteiro CA. The share of ultra-processed foods determines the overall nutritional quality of diets in Brazil. Public Health Nutr. 2018 Jan;21(1):94-102.
- Martínez Steele E, Popkin BM, Swinburn B, Monteiro CA. The share of ultra-processed foods and the overall nutritional quality of diets in the US: evidence from a nationally representative cross-sectional study. Popul Health Metr. 2017 Feb 14;15(1):6.
- Moubarac JC, Martins AP, Claro RM, Levy RB, Cannon G, Monteiro CA. Consumption of ultra-processed foods and likely impact on human health. Evidence from Canada. Public Health Nutr. 2013 Dec; 16(12):2240-8.
- Costa Louzada ML, Martins AP, Canella DS, Baraldi LG, Levy RB, Claro RM, Moubarac JC, Cannon G, Monteiro CA. Ultra-processed foods and the nutritional dietary profile in Brazil. Rev Saude Publica. 2015; 49():38.
- Rico-Campà A, Martínez-González MA, Alvarez-Alvarez I, Mendonça RD, de la Fuente-Arrillaga C, Gómez-Donoso C, Bes-Rastrollo M. Association between consumption of ultra-processed foods and all cause mortality: SUN prospective cohort study. BMJ. 2019 May 29;365:l1949.
- Blanco-Rojo R, Sandoval-Insausti H, López-Garcia E, Graciani A, Ordovás JM, Banegas JR, Rodríguez-Artalejo F, Guallar-Castillón P. Consumption of Ultra-Processed Foods and Mortality: A National Prospective Cohort in Spain. Mayo Clin Proc. 2019 Nov;94(11):2178-2188.
- Hiam L, Harrison D, McKee M, Dorling D. Why is life expectancy in England and Wales ‘stalling’? J Epidemiol Comm Health May 2018, 72 (5) 404-408;
- Woodley MA, Nijenhuis J, Murphy R. Were the Victorians Cleverer than Us? The decline in general intelligence estimated from meta-analysis of the slowing of simple reaction time. Intelligence 41, 843-850 (2013).
- Rolland M, Le Moal J, Wagner V, Royère D, De Mouzon J. Decline in semen concentration and morphology in a sample of 26,609 men close to general population between 1989 and 2005 in France. Hum Reprod. 2013 Feb;28(2):462-70.
- Vollset SE, Goren E, Yuan C-W, Cao J, Smith AE, Hsaio T and many others. Fertility, mortality, migration and population scenarios for 195 countries and territories from 2017 to 2100: a forecasting analysis from the Global Burden of disease Study. Lancet Open Access. Published:July14,2020DOI:https://dow.org/10.1016?S0140-6736(20)30677-2
- Molteni R, Barnard RJ, Ying Z, Roberts CK, Gómez-Pinilla F. A high-fat, refined sugar diet reduces hippocampal brain-derived neurotrophic factor, neuronal plasticity, and learning. Neuroscience. 2002; 112(4):803-14.
- Freeman LR, Haley-Zitlin V, Rosenberger DS, Granholm AC. Damaging effects of a high-fat diet to the brain and cognition: a review of proposed mechanisms. Nutr Neurosci. 2014 Nov; 17(6):241-51.
- Kanoski SE, Zhang Y, Zheng W, Davidson TL. The effects of a high-energy diet on hippocampal function and blood-brain barrier integrity in the rat. J Alzheimers Dis. 2010; 21(1):207-19.
- Li Y, Yu L, Zhao L, Zeng F, Liu Q-S. Resveratrol modulates cocaine-induced inhibitory synaptic plasticity in VTA dopamine neurons by inhibiting phosphodiesterases (PDEs). Sci Rep. 2017 Nov 15;7(1):15657.
- Aubry AV, Khandaker H, Ravenelle R, Grunfeld IS, Bonnefil V, Chan KL, Cathomas F, Liu J, Schafe GE, Burghardt NS. A diet enriched with curcumin promotes resilience to chronic social defeat stress. Neuropsychopharmacology. 2019 Mar;44(4):733-742.
- Ghasemi T, Abnous K, Vahdati F, Mehri S, Razavi BM, Hosseinzadeh H. Antidepressant Effect of Crocus sativus Aqueous Extract and its Effect on CREB, BDNF, and VGF Transcript and Protein Levels in Rat Hippocampus. Drug Res (Stuttg). 2015 Jul;65(7):337-43.
- Jiang C, Sakakibara E, Lin WJ, Wang J, Pasinetti GM, Salton SR. Grape-derived polyphenols produce antidepressant effects via VGF- and BDNF-dependent mechanisms. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2019 Nov;1455(1):196-205.
- Stevenson RJ, Francis HM, Attuquayefio T, Gupta D, Yeomans MR, Oaten MJ, Davidson TR. Hippocampal-dependent appetitive control is impaired by experimental exposure to a Western-style diet. Soc Open Sci. 2020 Feb 19;7(2):191338.
- Brasted PJ, Bussey TJ, Murray EA, Wise SP (2003). Role of the hippocampal system in associative learning beyond the spatial domain. Brain 126: 1202-1223.
- Tulving E, Markowitsch HJ. Episodic and declarative memory: role of the hippocampus. Hippocampus. 1998;8(3):198-204.
- Attuquayefio T, Stevenson RJ, Boakes RA, Oaten MJ, Yeomans MR, Mahmut M, Francis HM. A high-fat high-sugar diet predicts poorer hippocampal-related memory and a reduced ability to suppress wanting under satiety. J Exp Psychol Anim Learn Cogn. 2016 Oct;42(4):415-428.
- Jacka FN, Cherbuin N, Anstey KJ, Sachdev P, Butterworth P. Western diet is associated with a smaller hippocampus: a longitudinal investigation. BMC Med. 2015 Sep 8;13:215.
- Lindqvist A, Mohapel P, Bouter B, Frielingsdorf H, Pizzo D, Brundin P, Erlanson-Albertsson C. High-fat diet impairs hippocampal neurogenesis in male rats. Eur J Neurol. 2006 Dec;13(12):1385-8.
- Stangl D, Thuret S. Impact of diet on adult hippocampal neurogenesis. Genes Nutr. 2009 Dec; 4(4): 271–282.
- Beilharz JE, Maniam J, Morris MJ. Short-term exposure to a diet high in fat and sugar, or liquid sugar, selectively impairs hippocampal-dependent memory, with differential impacts on inflammation. Behav Brain Res. 2016 Jun 1;306:1-7.
- Jena PK, Sheng L, Di Lucente J, Jin LW, Maezawa I, Wan YY. Dysregulated bile acid synthesis and dysbiosis are implicated in Western diet-induced systemic inflammation, microglial activation, and reduced neuroplasticity. FASEB J. 2018 May;32(5):2866-2877.
- Villeda SA, Plambeck KE, Middeldorp J, Castellano JM, Mosher KI, Luo J, Smith LK, Bieri G, Lin K, Berdnik D, Wabl R, Udeochu J, Wheatley EG, Zou B, Simmons DA, Xie XS, Longo FM, Wyss-Coray T. Young blood reverses age-related impairments in cognitive function and synaptic plasticity in mice. Nat Med. 2014 Jun;20(6):659-63.
- Ortelan N, Neri DA, Benicio MHD. Feeding practices of low birth weight Brazilian infants and associated factors. Rev Saude Publica. 2020 Jan 31;54:14.
- Rohatgi KW, Tinius RA, Cade WT, Steele EM, Cahill AG, Parra DC. Relationships between consumption of ultra-processed foods, gestational weight gain and neonatal outcomes in a sample of US pregnant women. PeerJ. 2017 Dec 7;5:e4091.
- Hoy WE, Nicol JL. The Barker hypothesis confirmed: association of low birth weight with all-cause natural deaths in young adult life in a remote Australian Aboriginal community. J Dev Orig Health Dis. 2019 Feb;10(1):55-62.
- Bruce AS, Pruitt SW, Ha OR, Cherry JBC, Smith TR, Bruce JM, Lim SL. The Influence of Televised Food Commercials on Children’s Food Choices: Evidence from Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex Activations. J Pediatr. 2016 Oct;177:27-32.e1.