Brain Rewards Center Keeps Us From Eating Just One Potato Chip

Lawrence LeBlond for – Your Universe Online

Potato chips have been a popular snacking food for as long as anyone can remember. In fact, these salty, often multi-flavored snacks have been around since at least the dawn of the 20th century, and one traditional story, as cited by, gives an example of sliced potato rounds being fried and eaten as early as 1853.

The first company to officially sell the salty snacks opened its doors in 1910 under the name Mikesell´s Potato Chip Company, selling “Saratoga Chips,” named for the place where they were discovered, according to a statement on the company´s home page. By 1925, the company decided it needed a new image for the company and changed the company name to Mike-sell´s, which remained in play for over 85 years.

Those early days eventually led to an explosion in the snacking market and today the potato chip industry is a multi-billion-dollar business, with chips coming in all different kinds of shapes, sizes, colors, textures and flavors. Among the most popular brands out there today, one stands out for its bold claim that “You can´t have just one.” The famous slogan is that of the Lays Potato Chip brand, which first started selling their snacks in 1932.

Since the early 1960s, Lay´s has been challenging people with their original slogan “Betcha can´t eat just one.”

And over the past several decades, the awful reality has sunk in. People in fact cannot eat just one potato chip, as is evident with ballooning waistlines and blood pressure spikes, which may be attributable, at least in part, to scarfing down chips a bagful at a time on more-than-frequent occasions over the course of years and decades.

Now, researchers are looking into why it is that people can´t put down the bag after just eating a single chip, and have found some rather scientific evidence as to why this is, and have presented the findings at the 245th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS).

Tobias Hoch, PhD, lead author on the study, pointed to a condition called “hedonic hyperphagia” that seems to plague hundreds of millions of people all over the world.

“That´s the scientific term for ℠eating to excess for pleasure, rather than hunger,´” Hoch said in a statement. “It´s recreational over-eating that may occur in almost everyone at some time in life. And the chronic form is a key factor in the epidemic of overweight and obesity that here in the United States threatens health problems for two out of every three people.”

Hoch and his colleagues, delving deeper into the inner workings of hedonic hyperphagia, have found the root causes of the condition. His team, from FAU Erlangen-Nuremberg, in Erlangen, Germany, used lab rats to get to the bottom of the “can´t eat just one” conundrum. For the study, the rats in one group were allowed to feast on potato chips, while a second group was fed rat chow, and a third was given a mixture of fat and carbs.

While each group was offered similar amounts of each food type, the researchers found that those in the chip group more actively pursued their food, which can be explained partly by the high energy content of the snack. Hoch noted that the chip group was also more active after its feast than the other two groups.

Although the carbs and fats group got a source of high energy, the rats still pursued the chips most actively; the chow group was least active in its pursuit of a meal. Hoch noted that this provided further evidence that the chips contain some other ingredient that sparked interest in the rats.

Using high-tech magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) devices, the team peered into the brains of the rats to hunt out differences in activity between the three groups of rats. They found that the reward and addiction centers in the brain recorded the most activity. But the team also found evidence that other regions in the brain (food intake, sleep, activity and motion) were stimulated much differently in the potato chip group.

“By contrast, significant differences in the brain activity comparing the standard chow and the fat carbohydrate group only appeared to a minor degree and matched only partly with the significant differences in the brain activities of the standard chow and potato chips group,” Hoch noted in the statement.

Hoch surmised that since chips, as well as other foods, affect the reward center in the brain, it is likely that some people who do not like snack foods have a much different brain reward system that is activated based on “individual taste preferences.”

“In some cases maybe the reward signal from the food is not strong enough to overrule the individual taste,” he added, suggesting that some people may just simply have stronger willpower than others in not choosing to eat chips by the bagful.

The next step is to pinpoint the molecular trigger in snacks that stimulate the brain´s reward center. And if that can be accomplished, it may be possible to develop drugs that can block the attraction to snack foods, said Hoch. He also said that developing a nutrient that can be added to food to keep people from overeating would also work.

Although, he noted there is no evidence at this time that suggests there may be a way to add ingredients to healthful, yet unpopular, foods like Brussels sprouts to turn the rewards center on for that specific food.

As well, it is unlikely that popular food companies, such as Lays, would be interested in adding nutrients to their snacking foods to help people eat less.

But with recent studies showing that more than 60 percent of Americans are obese or overweight, not stopping at just one potato chip, as well as over-eating in general, continues to be a major problem, according to health experts.

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