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Why Is Junk Food So Addictive?

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We know it’s bad for us, but we can’t stop eating it. Why do our taste buds so frequently override our brains and tell us that eating that bag of potato chips, or that second snack cake, is worth the risk? Apparently, it’s not really our fault—junk food is addictive because food companies have designed it to be that way.

In his book Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us (and a New York Times article adapted from it), Michael Moss digs deep into the strategies that food companies use to keep the populations buying their food, twisting science and manipulating ingredients. A few of their tactics are more complicated than you may realize.

Howard Moskowitz runs a consulting firm for the bigwig junk food companies, and he’s responsible for a lot of the delicious foods we eat. The secret, Moskowitz told Moss, is something he calls “the bliss point”—that specific balance of flavors that isn’t too much, but isn’t too little, and leaves your brain craving more. The product can’t be too flavorful, or it creates what’s called “sensory-specific satiety”—a big flavor overwhelms the brain and dampens your desire for more. By contrast, boring flavors don’t engage the brain enough, and no matter how much you eat, it never feels like enough. For most companies, reaching the “bliss point” is a simple process: just add sugar. 

Other junk foods trick us into eating more than we ever should with something called “vanishing caloric density.” Steven Witherly, a food scientist and the author of Why Humans Like Junk Food, told Moss that Cheetos are “one of the most marvelously constructed foods on the planet, in terms of pure pleasure.” The puffy snacks melt in your mouth, tricking your brain into thinking there are no calories in it and convincing you to keep eating it forever.

As the population becomes increasingly concerned with the amount of sugars, salts, fats, and other ingredients that could be harming their health, junk food companies are forced to adjust the makeup of their popular snack foods to convince us that they’re still good to eat. By dialing down on the “bad” ingredient—for example, salt—and increasing the other not-quite-healthy ingredients to make up for taste, the company can label their product as “low sodium,” making the consumer think they’re choosing a healthier option, Moss says.

Unfortunately, food companies are driven by the need to survive—if they market something healthier but not as tasty, they risk going out of business because their competitors are still offering sugary, addictive products. But with new research showing that sugar may be as addictive as cocaine and books like Michael Moss’s, we could use our awareness to fight back against the manipulation of the food industry.

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Big Questions
Why Do Cats Freak Out After Pooping?
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Cats often exhibit some very peculiar behavior, from getting into deadly combat situations with their own tail to pouncing on unsuspecting humans. Among their most curious habits: running from their litter box like a greyhound after moving their bowels. Are they running from their own fecal matter? Has waste elimination prompted a sense of euphoria?

Experts—if anyone is said to qualify as an expert in post-poop moods—aren’t exactly sure, but they’ve presented a number of entertaining theories. From a biological standpoint, some animal behaviorists suspect that a cat bolting after a deposit might stem from fears that a predator could track them based on the smell of their waste. But researchers are quick to note that they haven’t observed cats run from their BMs in the wild.

Biology also has a little bit to do with another theory, which postulates that cats used to getting their rear ends licked by their mother after defecating as kittens are showing off their independence by sprinting away, their butts having taken on self-cleaning properties in adulthood.

Not convinced? You might find another idea more plausible: Both humans and cats have a vagus nerve running from their brain stem. In both species, the nerve can be stimulated by defecation, leading to a pleasurable sensation and what some have labeled “poo-phoria,” or post-poop elation. In running, the cat may simply be working off excess energy brought on by stimulation of the nerve.

Less interesting is the notion that notoriously hygienic cats may simply want to shake off excess litter or fecal matter by running a 100-meter dash, or that a digestive problem has led to some discomfort they’re attempting to flee from. The fact is, so little research has been done in the field of pooping cat mania that there’s no universally accepted answer. Like so much of what makes cats tick, a definitive motivation will have to remain a mystery.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Why Do Baseball Managers Wear Uniforms?
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Basketball and hockey coaches wear business suits on the sidelines. Football coaches wear team-branded shirts and jackets and often ill-fitting pleated khakis. Why are baseball managers the only guys who wear the same outfit as their players?

According to John Thorn, the official historian of Major League Baseball since 2011, it goes back to the earliest days of the game. Back then, the person known as the manager was the business manager: the guy who kept the books in order and the road trips on schedule. Meanwhile, the guy we call the manager today, the one who arranges the roster and decides when to pull a pitcher, was known as the captain. In addition to managing the team on the field, he was usually also on the team as a player. For many years, the “manager” wore a player’s uniform simply because he was a player. There were also a few captains who didn’t play for the team and stuck to making decisions in the dugout, and they usually wore suits.

With the passing of time, it became less common for the captain to play, and on most teams they took on strictly managerial roles. Instead of suits proliferating throughout America’s dugouts, though, non-playing captains largely hung on to the tradition of wearing a player's uniform. By the early to mid 20th century, wearing the uniform was the norm for managers, with a few notable exceptions. The Philadelphia Athletics’s Connie Mack and the Brooklyn Dodgers’s Burt Shotton continued to wear suits and ties to games long after it fell out of favor (though Shotton sometimes liked to layer a team jacket on top of his street clothes). Once those two retired, it’s been uniforms as far as the eye can see.

The adherence to the uniform among managers in the second half of the 20th century leads some people to think that MLB mandates it, but a look through the official major league rules [PDF] doesn’t turn up much on a manager’s dress. Rule 1.11(a) (1) says that “All players on a team shall wear uniforms identical in color, trim and style, and all players’ uniforms shall include minimal six-inch numbers on their backs" and rule 2.00 states that a coach is a "team member in uniform appointed by the manager to perform such duties as the manager may designate, such as but not limited to acting as base coach."

While Rule 2.00 gives a rundown of the manager’s role and some rules that apply to them, it doesn’t specify that they’re uniformed. Further down, Rule 3.15 says that "No person shall be allowed on the playing field during a game except players and coaches in uniform, managers, news photographers authorized by the home team, umpires, officers of the law in uniform and watchmen or other employees of the home club." Again, nothing about the managers being uniformed.

All that said, Rule 2.00 defines the bench or dugout as “the seating facilities reserved for players, substitutes and other team members in uniform when they are not actively engaged on the playing field," and makes no exceptions for managers or anyone else. While the managers’ duds are never addressed anywhere else, this definition does seem to necessitate, in a roundabout way, that managers wear a uniform—at least if they want to have access to the dugout. And, really, where else would they sit?

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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