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We're willing to pay more for the junk foods we crave, study finds

REUTERS/Phil Noble
Resisting high-calorie junk food is not simply a matter of will power, particularly for people who are overweight.

Did you find yourself buying junk food over the weekend that you knew was unhealthful and overpriced, but you felt you just had to have it anyway? 

Well, if you did, you’re not alone. Giving into such an urge — not only buying a favorite candy bar or Danish pastry or ice cream cone, but also spending too much for it — appears to be more common than most of us are likely to acknowledge. For, according to a new study, we are quite willing — in fact, eager — to overpay for foods we crave.

That’s discouraging news. It underscores the great obstacle that food cravings pose to maintaining a healthful diet and weight, and, thus, the complex challenges facing individuals and society in the battle against obesity.

“Our results indicate that even if people strive to eat healthier, craving could overshadow the importance of health by boosting the value of tempting, unhealthy foods relative to healthier options,” said Anna Konova, the study’s lead author and a postdoctoral research at New York University’s Center for Neural Science, in a released statement.

“Craving, which is pervasive in daily life, may nudge our choices in very specific ways that help us acquire those things that made us feel good in the past — even if those things may not be consistent with our current health goals,” she adds.

As background information in the study points out, food cravings are extremely common. In surveys, more than 90 percent of people report having a food craving of some kind.

Although cravings are known to contribute to drug and other addictions, their importance in eating disorders and obesity is only beginning to be studied. Researching food cravings is complicated, however, particularly since it’s difficult to distinguish cravings from hunger and thirst.

A pair of experiments

The current study involved two separate experiments. In the first, 44 non-dieters who had not eaten for four hours were shown photos of 15 different sweet and savory snack foods. They were asked how much they wanted to eat each food, as well as how much they were willing to pay for each item, up to $5. 

The participants were then randomly given one of three items in the photographs — a Snickers bar, a package of Cheerios or a can of Coca Cola, which were chosen for their high “temptation level” and their “relationship to risk for overeating.” The participants were instructed to examine the item by opening or unwrapping it, pouring it into a cup or breaking off a piece, and smelling it. They were also asked to imagine the taste and texture of the item (without actually eating it) and to recall a specific memory of when they consumed the product in the past.

After three minutes, they put the item aside and bid again for it and the 14 other items they had looked at earlier in the photos. The researchers found that the participants increased their bid for the item they had handled — the one they had been manipulated into craving — by an average of 66 cents, or about 38 percent. They had also increased their bid for similar high-sugar, high-fat snacks by an average of 26 cents.

They were not, however, willing to pay more for less-similar and relatively “healthier” items among the snacks, such as pretzels and granola bars. That finding suggests, according to the researchers, that the participants’ increased desire for the other snacks was not driven by general hunger.

“The desire for Snickers does not make one hungrier; it makes one desire Snickers and to some degree subjectively similar goods, such as its closest substitutes,” the researchers write in their paper.

In a second experiment, 45 participants went through the same process, but were given the opportunity to bid on larger amounts of the same snacks. The study found that the participants were willing to pay disproportionally more for the junk foods they were manipulated into desiring.

“It appears that craving boosts or multiplies the economic value of the craved food,” said Konova.

Not just a matter of willpower

This was a small study and none of its participants was currently dieting. So, it’s not clear that the study’s results would be applicable to larger, more diverse populations, including the 45 million Americans who go on diets each year.

Still, the findings are interesting, as they support a growing understanding — at least among scientists — that highly complex biological processes drive how and when and why we feel hungry. In other words, resisting high-calorie junk food is not simply a matter of will power, particularly for people who are overweight.

The study also calls attention to the role that the advertising of unhealthful, high-calorie snacks and other food products plays in the continuing — and growing — obesity crisis.

FMI: The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), where it can be read in full.

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