Friday, December 20, 2013

Food Reward Friday

This week's lucky "winner"... peanut M + M's!!!

Don't lie*.  Peanut M + M's taste amazing.  There's something especially seductive about a chocolate-covered nut.  What is it?  Probably the winning combination of high calorie density, fat, sugar, and a mild habit-forming drug (caffeine/theobromine), in a package that's extremely easy to eat.  I also think there's something particularly palatable about fats that are solid at room temperature but melt in the mouth, such as butter and chocolate.

In addition, my girlfriend recently pointed out to me that there's something peculiar about the psychology of eating M + M's and other small food items from a bowl.  Since each individual M + M is small and practically negligible from a calorie and health standpoint, and requires nothing more than a hand gesture to eat, the barrier for initiating the snacking episode is very low.  You think you can control your portion size.  Yet once you start, it's hard to stop eating them until you've eaten a significant number of unneeded calories.

This is different from eating cake, for example.  To eat cake, you have to find a plate and utensils, cut a slice, and eat it.  You know you're going to be eating a significant amount of food-- the amount you put on your plate.  This mental commitment and effort, although small, makes you think about if you really want to go through with it, and the defined portion size helps you control your portion.

I think this is a serious problem because easy snacks such as M + M's are a typical part of office culture.  It's a nice gesture to offer that pleasure to your employees, but ultimately it's one of the common features of our food environment that chips away at our health.

* Santa will know.

Photo credit: stormwarning (Flickr)


Franc said...

There is also the added crunchy feedback when you eat them.

I have the same with smoked salted almonds, the extra saltiness adds to the want more

Jenny said...

Eating small fatty crunchy things probably also activates the same parts of our primate brain that used to eat insects after grooming. So satisfying!

aluchko said...

Do people really have an issue with this though?

Doughnuts, chips, cake, ice cream, etc. Those kinds of food I can easily pig out on. Even mixed nuts qualify so maybe I would binge on peanut M&Ms though I'm not sure I've ever had enough to be tempted.

But chocolate in general, while I can see it being an issue if you ate it daily, I've never found it to be addictive or binge inducing in the same way as other treats.

Do others have the same experience?

stevetursi said...

" Probably the winning combination of high calorie density, fat, sugar, and a mild habit-forming drug (caffeine/theobromine)"

... and the salt. Don't forget the salt.

(never forget the salt)

Seriously, a couple of years ago I discovered the magical combination of salt and chocolate.. within weeks I gained 100 lbs, and within months they were cutting holes in the walls with a crane to bring me out..

Diana said...


It's the sugar, after all.

Which is NOT addictive. Repeat 1000 times. Sugar is not addictive.


Stephan Guyenet said...

Hi Franc,

Good point.

Hi Jenny,


Hi Aluchko,

I don't know to what extent people will pig out per se, but I do think having a bowl of M&M's out tends to lead to consumption of extra calories.

Hi Steven,

Good point about the salt.

Hi Diana,

I've been dismayed to see how that study has been grossly over-interpreted by the media and even by the senior investigator of the study. The study reported fMRI responses to sugar and fat ingestion in the brain, and found that both cause a response, in partially overlapping brain regions, but the response to sugar was dose-dependent. They somehow feel this is sufficient evidence to make all kinds of inferences about cravings, weight gain, etc. Nonsense. There is nothing about this fMRI data that allows us to infer anything of the sort. If you want to know whether sugar vs. fat causes cravings and weight gain, you design a trial where people eat sugar vs. fat and you measure cravings and weight gain, you don't measure brain activity using a crude tool and make all sorts of wild inferences.

The quote by David Ludwig at the end of the NYT piece is also unsupported. I'm dismayed that this idea has become so firmly rooted in the popular consciousness without much scientific support.

Teech said...

Agreed Diana! When I used to eat cereal, I would add extra sugar, not fat to it. And when I've made desserts, I don't add fast to make them taste better, I add sugar. The problem is the combination of high fat and high sugar together in crappy foods. Although chips, crackers, and cereals are highly palatable despite their low fat content.

1977ub said...

at work, helpful to remember how many grubby hands have been reaching into the bowl...

bentleyj74 said...

Yay! Peanut m&m' of the few you've posted that I can really relate to. Definitely don't forget the salt. Best enjoyed if you just open one corner and tilt the bag over your face so that they cascade in a deluge of pleasure.

I don't buy peanut m&m's very often :)

valerie said...

Thanks Jenny, you forever cured my cravings for small fatty crunchy things.

stephers said...

What I want to know is why fried chicken smells so good. I was in line at the food store and suddenly I was wondering "What IS that wonderful smell?" Of course it was fried chicken being purchased by someone behind me.

Even cats go bananas when you bring fried chicken in the house. Why would a cat like that smell? Even young cats that have never had it (and certainly cats didn't evolve to eat it) go nuts when you bring it home.

Stephan Guyenet said...

Hi Stephers,

Fried foods are one of the most energy-dense foods in our diet and as such, they have a very high reward value. Meaning that repeated exposure leads us to enjoy it more and more, and enjoy the sensory properties associated with it, such as aroma. They're also inherently pleasurable for some of the same reasons. This would be a good one for FRF.

That doesn't explain why cats would inherently like the smell before any exposure though, I don't know why that might be. Maybe the high temperature simply volatilizes a lot of the aromatics associated with the meat and it smells especially meaty to a cat.

Unknown said...

I agree with you here, they are VERY easy to eat. It doesn't help that they are extremely available. The only thing that stops me from eating them is looking at the ingredients and seeing that "partially hydrogenated oil" in there, and then wondering how much Trans fat I'm actually getting, especially if I go over the portion size. So I go for justin's PB cups instead, which are just as easy to eat but a little bit more expensive. And you're right, Santa ALWAYS knows when you lie ;). Happy Holidays & Merry Christmas.

Unknown said...

Doughnuts, chips, cake, ice cream, etc. Those kinds of food I can easily pig out on. Even mixed nuts qualify so maybe I would binge on peanut M&Ms though I'm not sure I've ever had enough to be tempted

Gabriella Kadar said...


Possibly it's the kibble you are feeding. Cats fed on kibble containing corn will consider corn on the cob to be food. I know because the first cats born in the early 1990s were fed Purina cat chow at the beginning. They would chow down on corn on the cob just like people. They also went for popcorn and potato chips.

The current bunch of cats born 2011 have never eaten cat kibble containing grains and don't recognize corn on the cob as being edible. They get a low carb diet and go crazy over raw beef, shrimp, yoghurt... sometimes raw chicken and lamb. They do not have interest in cooked meat for some reason although they'll steal cooked chicken bones and fish skeletons. One weirdo goes bonkers over raw green beans but mostly for the smell.

Look at the ingredients in the catfood and see what may be similar to fried chicken. Kibble is sprayed with flavour enhancers so possibly the fried chicken and the kibble have something in common.