To see how artificial flavors change your behavior consider a simple experiment.
Dissolve 30 grams of sugar into water and try drinking it. It tastes horrible. It is too sweet. Add some blueberry flavor and color and now it is OK to drink. In fact, add some vitamins and you have a bestseller on your hands.
By themselves artificial flavors are not bad. They are not poisonous. However, they do make you consume more calories.
Also, they break the link between flavor and nutrition. To understand why this relationship is important, let’s answer a different question:
Why can we binge on McDonald’s but not on apples?
Plants have primary and secondary compounds. Primary compounds are called primary because they are essential for the survival of the plant. Secondary compounds are responsible for flavor, smell, and color of the fruit. That’s why the more flavorful the plant is the more secondary compounds it packs.
Plants make secondary compounds for various purposes. To kill bacteria, to repel insects or to attract animals. Cocaine and caffeine are examples of the secondary compounds. Some of the secondary compounds are powerful antioxidants.
Secondary compounds in fruits and vegetables impact satiety. For example, when researchers fed rats blueberry extract, the rats ate less.
Feed manufacturers used to add oregano extract to the feed to promote intestinal health. But they had to stop the practice because oregano would make animals eat less.
Raisins increase hormones associated with satiety. Chili peppers seem to have a similar effect. Bitter compounds in grapes and broccoli – also release hormones that trigger satiety (for more examples see “The Dorito Effect“).
Flavors in fruits and vegetables impact not only our mouths and noses, but also our digestive system from stomach to intestines. Our digestive track has sensors for proteins, fats, bacteria, hormone, and even plant-compound sensors. You might not taste it but it affects how you feel.
A lot of the secondary compounds are toxic in large doses so the satiety is the evolutionary way to protect you from poisoning. Think about cocaine, nicotine, heroin, and caffeine toxicity. Any animal that consumes plants containing them had to develop a system to control intake of secondary compounds.
So the reason you cannot binge on fruits is because the secondary compounds in these fruits are toxic in large doses.
And that’s the problem with McDonalds, KFC, and fast food in general. It is not toxic enough (ironically). There’s nothing in that food that triggers satiety. So we binge on it.
We like food. We spent thousands of years learning relationship between flavor and nutrition. Artificial flavors not only break this connection but they also confuse us.
Consider an example. When you eat grape, the grape flavor informs your body that antioxidants, phytonutrients, resveratrol, catechins, fiber, folate, vitamin A, C, E, K, manganese, iron, riboflavin, sodium, potassium and other nutrients are coming. You body learn the connection from eating tasting grapes and digesting them again and again.
And what do you get when you drink grape-flavored soda? A lot of sugar and none of the secondary compounds.
So what happens when you drink grape-flavored soda (that does not have any grapes) or eat blueberry-flavored pancakes (that don’t have any blueberries) on a daily basis?
And as fruits, vegetables, and unprocessed meats become bland, we compensate by making our processed foods more flavorful. As our consumption of artificial flavors increases, so are our waistlines it seems.
Also, artificial sweeteners act the same way by breaking the link between calories and food (for more explanation read see “The Dorito Effect“)