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Dear Food Doc: It’s the holiday season, and there seems to be snack foods everywhere. I find them difficult to resist, and once I get started, it’s impossible to stop. Are they putting some sort of secret additives in those foods to keep me munching?

Answer: The snack food industry has a remarkable business model. Make these foods so tasty and appealing that customers can’t stop eating them.

The perfect example of this strategy was the Lay’s Potato Chips slogan from the 1980s:

“Bet you can’t eat just one”. Given that the average American eats the equivalent of 100 lunch-sized bags per year, it’s a pretty safe bet.

From Skittles to Pringles to Cheetos, we love our sweet, salty and savory snacks. There is an entire aisle at the grocery devoted to these products. And if we somehow missed it, there’s another section at check-out. They are in vending machines, convenience stores and even hardware stores.

Unfortunately, most snack foods are high in salt, sugar, fat, refined carbohydrates and total calories. That hasn’t stopped us from consuming more of these foods than ever before.

What drives this seemingly insatiable appetite for these foods? Why can’t we just say no? Is it simply a matter of lacking will power? Or, as you suggested, it there a more sinister reason? Is it possible there’s a secret ingredient that keeps us coming back for more?

Leave it to some smart neurobiologists to provide some answers. They have suggested that sweet and salty snack foods trigger the pleasure signals in our brain. The more we eat, the more that pleasure sensor is stimulated. It’s a cycle that makes us want to keep eating, even if our stomachs say we’ve had enough.

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One recent study even suggested gut microbes were complicit. These high-sugar, high-fat foods do more than simply add calories. They also appear to disrupt our gut microbiomes, sending signals to the brain to eat more.

A few years ago, the commissioner of the FDA, Dr. David Kessler, argued that food companies were deliberately formulating foods to be “hyper-palatable.” Foods containing lots of salt, fat and sugar are irresistible, not just because “they taste good, but because they make us feel good”.

Some researchers contend these foods are nearly as addictive as drugs, but that is probably a stretch. Still, they do elicit some similar behaviors. Chronic snack food eaters are unable to control their habit, even when the consequences are clearly harmful. They often quit but then relapse. And food is always on their mind.

We all know people who have tremendous self-control. At holiday parties, they walk right on by the bowl of chips, they decline dessert, and they substitute a salad for the French fries. For the rest of us, however, the temptation often proves to be too much.

Interestingly, some fiber-rich foods may help to short-circuit this cycle, reducing our appetite for sweet and salty snacks. In the meantime, perhaps the best advice is to plan ahead. Most of our snacking occurs without really thinking. Perhaps if we are at least aware of the challenge, we could maybe eat just one.

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Bob Hutkins is the Food Doc. He is a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he teaches and conducts research in food science and food microbiology. Send your questions on any topic related to food, food safety, food ingredients and food processing to the Food Doc at features@journalstar.com.

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