Friday, January 2, 2015

Food Reward Friday

This week's lucky "winner"... croissants!!

The origins of this delectable buttery pastry are lost in European history.  Croissants titillate our food reward circuits with their extremely high calorie density, concentrated fat and starch, and salt.  We enjoy their light texture, which in fact conceals a hefty load of calories.  We seem to particularly enjoy foods, such as ice cream, popcorn, and bread, that are calorie-dense but give the illusion of lightness.

Because of their extremely high calorie density and palatability, croissants provide little fullness per calorie consumed.  In their landmark paper on the satiety value of common foods, Susanna Holt and colleagues reported that croissants are the least filling of the 38 foods they tested-- far less filling per calorie than even white bread (1).

In other words, because of how they interact with sensors in the mouth, stomach, and small intestine, croissants scarcely provoke the sensation that tells us to stop eating.  As a result, we don't stop eating until we've taken in more calories than we need.

At the same time, the effects of croissants on brain reward circuits make us more likely to crave and choose croissants in the future, and more likely to develop a habit of eating them regularly.

There's nothing wrong with treating yourself to a croissant every now and then, but if you're concerned about excess weight it may be best to eat something else.

Image credit: Sundar1 via Wikipedia


  1. Actually, the history isn't lost; it's just been heavily mythologized. It's easy enough to find in The Oxford Companion To Food. The earliest French references to any crescent-shaped breadstuff are from the mid 19th-century, and the modern puff-paste croissant first appears in the literature in 1906. They have a discussion of the story that the thing was invented in 17th-century Vienna to celebrate a victory over the Turks in their article "Culinary Mythology."

  2. Hi Stephan,
    I don't entirely agree. I am French and am used to eating an occasional croissant. As much as it is delicious, one single croissant is enough for me, I am not tempted to eat another one, nor do I want one later. I must eat a croissant once in a blue moon. But it must be a high quality one, from a traditional bakery. Anything less than that is not worth it.

    On the other hand, milk chocolate ... that is something hard to limit yourself with ... ;)

  3. Is the breakdown in communication between reward circuits and nutrient sensing the key to overeating then? Is it a delay between the two?

    You mentioned before that roux-en-y surgery sometimes removes a section of the ileum that performs nutrient sensing (sorry forgot where you mentioned this) and that in those cases the surgery had better long term outcomes.

    In this case reduced nutrient sensing led to weight loss but you hypothesise that reduced nutrient sensing in the eating of calorie dense food can lead to over eating.

    Very sorry if I have misinterpreted what you have said at any stage but would be fascinated to hear more on this if you could point me to a blog post of talk of yours that expounds upon it.

  4. When I used to eat them I never bought fewer than two, usually one with almond filling and one with chocolate, though if they had ham and cream cheese I was all over that bad boy.

  5. "At the same time, the effects of croissants on brain reward circuits make us more likely to crave and choose croissants in the future, and more likely to develop a habit of eating them regularly."

    Is this an established fact, or (plausible) speculation? In other words, is it proven that low-satiation food is also preferred food?


  6. Crossants are good to have every once in a while. Thanks for sharing!

    -Living chemical free

  7. Hi Sam,

    Good question, I don't know the answer. It is true that the same section of small intestine seems to mediate satiety and food reward signals, making it difficult to disentangle the effects.

    Hi Valerie,

    It's an established fact that concentrated fats and carbohydrates reinforce behavior, although that hasn't been demonstrated for croissants specifically.

    What the brain prefers is foods that are concentrated sources of calories, fat, starch, sugar, protein, and salt. These tend to have a low satiety value per calorie.


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