The Obesity Epidemic and Addictive Foods

There’s an epidemic of obesity in the U.S., and new research helps explain the difficulty many people have in avoiding fattening foods. British researchers have shown that chocolate acts on the brain in a way similar to addictive drugs.

The term “chocoholic” has been used for years to describe people who craved chocolate; popular culture recognized the addictive nature of chocolate long ago. Chocolate marketers, of course, have understood the addiction aspect since the early days of confection manufacturing, as well as the power of enticing images to trigger desire. Now, neuroscientists have proof that some chocolate lovers really are a lot like addicts. “When cravers viewed pictures of chocolate this activated regions of the brain known to be involved in habit-forming behaviours and drug addiction,” notes a story in the Guardian, Brain scans pinpoint how chocoholics are hooked. The work was done by Edmund Rolls and Ciara McCabe of the University of Oxford’s experimental psychology department. The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of eight chocoholics and eight non-cravers.

That chocolate can have addictive characteristics for some people isn’t a big surprise. It wouldn’t surprise me if other food items, like fried foods or sweets, showed similar effects for some subjects.

The key takeaways for marketers are that visual images will trigger a desire for the product in some people, and that other people may be relatively unaffected by the same images. To maximize appeal, packaging of a chocolate product or advertising for that product should actually portray the enticing chocolate. While some brands may have packaging that so familiar (e.g., a gold Godiva chocolates box or a Snickers bar) that they can trigger the same craving in frequent consumers as actual chocolate images, less familiar brands would be advised to push the visual chocolate button whenever possible. Failing to do so may result in losing sales to either more brain-stimulating packaging or more familiar brands.

And for those trying to avoid chocolate and lose weight? Not only should you avoid having chocolate available, but, to the extent possible, avoid product ads and other pictures of chocolate (and perhaps other addictive foods). One wonders if a lavishly illustrated magazine geared to dieters or light cooking does more harm than good by illustrating a luscious-looking “light” chocolate dessert. The dessert recipe may indeed be relatively low in calories, but the craving response it triggers may result in an immediate desire to consume whatever chocolate is at hand.

(Note: we discussed similar news from this lab last year in Food Ads and Marketing to “Cravers”. Their most recent work will be published this month in the European Journal of Neuroscience.)


This post was written by:

— who has written 984 posts on Neuromarketing.

Roger Dooley writes and speaks about marketing, and in particular the use of neuroscience and behavioral research to make advertising, marketing, and products better. He is the primary author at Neuromarketing, and founder of Dooley Direct LLC, a marketing consultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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5 responses to "The Obesity Epidemic and Addictive Foods" — Your Turn


Chuck 29. August 2007 at 10:56 pm

You’re blog looks awesome. I am really fascinated by the study of consumer behavior. I just added you to my links.


Dr Shock 2. September 2007 at 7:44 am

Chocolate craving is probably a part of carbohydrate craving so your excellent article is of interest for a lot of readers.
Do we share a common interest Neuroscience or is it the chocolate?
Regards, Dr Shock


Roger Dooley
Twitter: rogerdooley
2. September 2007 at 8:05 am

Maybe both? Perhaps the chocolate is more of an addiction than an interest, if you believe this research. :)



Jasmine Tee 27. February 2008 at 1:05 am

I am writing article about addictive food. Can I use your article as a reference?


Roger Dooley
Twitter: rogerdooley
27. February 2008 at 8:42 am

Sure, Jasmine. :)



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