May 20, 2023

Can’t stop won’t stop — and here's why

When the author made her own salsa, she found it was delicious, while not being addictive like the store-bought stuff. She did a little research, and learned that even "fresh" store-bought salsas contain preservatives and flavor enhancers like citric acid — which pull us back for more. Pictured is her DIY salsa, for which she shares the recipe.

We all know the story when I left my Upper East Side apartment in New York City at midnight to trudge to a Duane Reade drug store in the snow only to procure a box of SnackWell’s mini chocolate chip cookies. I ate a quarter of the box en route home and another quarter whilst climbing up the five flights of stairs to my apartment. I shoved one more adequate handful into my mouth before throwing them into the trash.

Five minutes later (let’s be real, it might have been three,) they were out of the trash and back in my hands, yet another handful on its way to my mouth. (They were still in the box in the trash bin, so it wasn’t as gross as it sounds). Still, it was gross for other reasons. Running water over the remainder of the cookies in their plastic liner seemed like a great solution at the time and it worked. I didn’t go back for more. Cookie mush. That was beneath even me.

Not being able to stop or to control myself was a me problem, I thought. There must have been something wrong with me that I was unable to control myself around sweets. At least that was my narrative. That wasn’t the only time I was shocked at my own food intake. There were many times that I thought someone else must’ve stolen my fare. It was a likely solution, if only I hadn’t been alone at the time. It wasn’t only my own food. My roommates would sometimes bring home delectable fare which I would sample without their permission. I’m pretty sure it was why some of them moved out.

This is the crazy thing: It wasn’t my fault. I now realize that carefully combined levels of sugar, salt and fat had control over me. The additives in these foods were designed to have me coming back for more as well. Afterall, I wasn’t cleaning out a bowl of salad or eating the last bunch of grapes. I sought highly processed and heavily engineered foods and lots of ’em.


As we saw in Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Moss’ book “Hooked,” food companies use combinations of sugar, salt and fat in magical ratios that hit our bliss point — eliciting an even bigger reward from our brain: dopamine. Foods that contain highly palatable combos of these ingredients — more of each than we would ever combine ourselves — program us to become addicted and make us come back for more of that dopamine high.

Sugar, salt and fat may not be culprits on their own, but the combinations in which they’re used in ultra-processed foods are scientific. They elicit childhood memories. They’re combined with flavors that soothe us. They imbue foods with situations that made us feel safe as kids. The amount of research that goes into provoking these feelings may be the most horrifying thing about this scenario … until you see the effects.

Forty-two percent of American adults are either overweight or obese. Nearly 20 percent of our kids are. The shocking facts are no longer shocking … which is what’s shocking. Ultra-processed foods make up 60 percent of our diet as American adults and it contributes 70 percent of our kids’ diets. Why are we still ignoring that these foods make us fat and, more importantly, sick?

Aside from the murderous combinations of sugar, salt and fat (which include not only real forms of these macronutrients, but their faux counterparts as well) there are several synthetic additives found in our foods that not only contribute to weight gain, but keep us coming back for mucho mas.

Citric acid

Though I now abstain from midnight forays for drugstore cookies, I have still found that there were certain foods I couldn’t stop eating. Salsa was one of those foods, but since it’s simply veggies, I didn’t worry too much about the volume I could consume in one sitting. What was the worst that could happen? I could face the wrath of those in my company who wanted a teeny tiny bit of the huge bowl of salsa, but other than that, I felt no guilt.

I wondered, however, why I kept coming back for more. One taco Tuesday, I reached for my favorite “fresh” salsa and instead found a sign informing me that the cooler was broken. I didn’t want to buy jarred salsa (hello … additives), so I grabbed a couple more ingredients and made my own. It took no time in my food processor and was delicious. It was not, however, addictive. I could stop eating it and my family even got some.

I wondered about this phenomenon, so did a little digging. Even “fresh” salsas contain preservatives and flavor enhancers like citric acid. Citric acid may sound simply like a little innocuous lemon juice, but synthetic citric acid, which is used as a preservative and flavor enhancer in everything from food to prescription medications, is made from corn. It helps give food an umami flavor, making us crave more!

For years, this substance has been protected by the GRAS (Generally Regarded as Safe) list. It’s prodigiously used in foods and drinks. A recent study has finally called this substance into question. In this study, manufactured citric acid (MCA) was connected with inflammation and joint pain, irritable bowel syndrome as well as muscular pain and fatigue. More research is needed to really understand what the ubiquitous use of this additive in foods means for our health, but signs are pointing to — it ain’t good.

Citric acid is found in foods like diet sodas, tonic water and even some flavored seltzers, tortilla chips, energy bars and drinks, prepared hummus, instant oatmeal, jelly beans, potato chips and many, many more.


Another member of the GRAS list and an all-too-common ingredient used to enhance flavor, or texture and to extend shelf life of foods is maltodextrin. It is used to thicken foods, giving them added volume. With the same calorie count as sugar, it quickly breaks down quickly into a carbohydrate. This additive spikes blood sugar unnecessarily, messes with the delicate bacterial balance in our gut, can cause gastrointestinal problems and can lead to weight gain.

Foods that contain maltodextrin include pasta, cooked cereals and rice, meat substitutes, baked goods, salad dressings, frozen meals, soups, sugars and sweets, and energy and sports drinks.


Perhaps the most popular member of the GRAS club, not to mention a household name, is monosodium glutamate or MSG. This flavor enhancer not only grabs our taste buds and wraps them with a savory flavor that momentarily satisfies us (umami) and promptly leads us back for more, but its aroma has an attractive smell as well. MSG forms naturally in foods like seaweed, soy sauce, miso and some cheeses. Its synthetic counterpart has been shown to sponsor headaches, sweating, and numbness, tingling or burning in the face, neck and other areas, and quick, fluttering heartbeats, chest pain, nausea and weakness in some people. (Some claim that naturally occurring MSG can have these side effects as well).

Although there is no consensus about the ill effects of MSG, older evidence has connected it to lower levels of leptin, the hormone that signals satiety to our brain, thereby allowing us to eat more. Ever notice how much Chinese food we can pack away?

Synthetic MSG is added to fast food, snacks and chips, seasonings, frozen meals and canned soups, processed meats, salad dressings, soy sauce and other condiments. Whether naturally occurring or synthetic, other names for MSG include textured protein, yeast extract, soy isolate, pectin, hydrolyzed corn, autolyzed yeast protein and soy sauce, among others.

Though it’s reported that our bodies can’t decipher between the two, many foods naturally contain the makings for MSG such as tomatoes, carrots and mushrooms, none of which I would recommend avoiding. Steer clear of synthetic versions like those in ultra-processed foods.

These flavor enhancers may not only increase our cravings for the foods that contain them, but may lead to an increase in appetite as well.

DIY salsa


½ pint cherry or 2 Roma tomatoes, diced

1 can (14 oz) diced tomatoes with juices

2 green onions, roughly chopped, (set aside

some of the green for garnish)

1/3 cup red onion, diced

½ jalapeño pepper, deseeded and chopped

1/3 to ½ cup cilantro leaves

1 large clove garlic, roughly chopped

½ lime juiced and zested (more as desired)

½ to 3/4 teaspoon chili powder (to taste)

¼ teaspoon ground cumin

1/8 teaspoon garlic powder

Salt and pepper to taste


Add all ingredients to a food processor and

pulse until combined. Retain texture rather

than completely liquifying.


Katharine A. Jameson, a certified nutrition counselor who grew up in Williamsville and Townshend, writes about food and health for Vermont News & Media. For more tricks, tips and hacks, find her on Instagram: @foodforthoughtwithkat

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