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Chips: The Leading Cause of Obesity in America

Update Date: Apr 11, 2013 01:51 AM EDT

We all know potato chips are unhealthy, but it turns out they're not just fuelling obesity and heart disease epidemics, but chips have also been linked to developmental problems in unborn babies, hyperactivity in children and potentially cancer in adults.

Eating just one packet a day can add up to the equivalent of drinking more than a gallon of cooking oil per year. Let's not forget all the sugar, fat and salt on top of that.

Potato chips are in fact a product that has been industrially perfected to the point of addiction for our taste buds. Think about it, you can never just have one.

Michael Moss, the author of a newly published book Salt, Sugar, Fat: How The Food Giants Hooked Us aims to explain decades of research by food-making giants that has transformed a seemingly harmless snack of potato chips into an addiction.

When you pop a [chip] in your mouth the taste of salt hits you almost immediately. It's an effect that the salt industry calls 'the flavour burst'  Moss says.

They are also loaded with fat to provide something that the industry calls 'mouthfeel'. Making snackers experience of munching on chips similar to the pleasure sensation you get when you bite into gooey cheese. 

We feel this through a nerve called the trigeminal, which sits above and behind the mouth and sends tactile information to the brain. The better the mouthfeel, the more we desire it.

The combination of salt, fat and sugar that is naturally packed in the potato starch creates a trio of flavors that our instinctive brains naturally crave, Moss tells UK reporter John Naish.  But the ultimate secret weapon of today's chips is their scientifically honed crispiness.

"Research has found that the more noise [a chip] makes when you bite into it, the more you will like it," Moss says. 

The author says there are a slew of tricks science is now revealing on how these snack giants hook you.

For example they have discovered things such as "the perfect break point" which is four pounds of pressure per square inch. Also, labeling products as "gourmet" is another trick fooling consumers, making it seem less awful if they over-snack.

This highly addictive snack with their scientifically perfect burst of fat, sugar and salt comes at a potential price to our health. Research has proven that when consumed in excess, these snacks increase our risk of obesity, hypertension, type 2 diabetes and coronary disease. The threat is especially large to children-over-consumption can put them on the path to a lifetime of poor health.

Recent research shows chips are now the single largest contributor to the obesity epidemic in the U.S., according to cardiologist and food researcher, Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, whose findings were published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

"All foods are not equal, and just eating in moderation is not enough," Mozaffarian says.

In his research, of all foods potatoes stand out the single largest reason for weight gain, but especially chips. It is not just that chips are easily available and highly fattening, he said, they also make you physically crave more of them. 

Dr. Mozaffarian, an assistant professor of medicine and epidemiology at Harvard Medical School, says research indicates the high levels of starches and refined carbohydrates in today's larger-sized 'single-serving' packets of crisps can knock awry the levels of glucose and insulin in our blood. This 'leads to less feeling of fullness, increasing hunger and larger amounts of food consumed over the course of the day.'

High levels of insulin are linked to obesity and type 2 diabetes.

Consuming too many chips is not only harmful to children's and adults' bodies, but it is also potentially harmful to unborn babies.

British research suggests that women who consume large amounts of chips may be harming their babies just as much as if they were smoking cigarettes. This is due to the presence of a toxic chemical called acrylamide, which is invisible, odorless and tasteless, but has been linked to DNA damage.

A study focusing on the diets of 186 pregnant women conducted by the Bradford Institute for Health Research has found a link between high levels of exposure to acrylamide and lower birth weight and head circumference in newborns. Researchers said the main source of acrylamide in the pregnant women's diets from Bradford were from chips.  

Their babies had the highest levels of acrylamide of all the five European centres studied, almost twice the level of Danish babies.

 "These two measures are key indicators of risks to babies' health," says Bradford researcher John Wright, an epidemiologist and consultant in public health medicine.

Delayed development of the brain and nervous system, type 2 diabetes and heart disease were all linked to acrylamide, he said.

"When you add the acrylamide contamination to the amount of fat, sugar and salt that crisps contain, then crisps have similar levels of toxicity in pregnant women to smoking,' says Dr Wright. 

"Because of this damage to newborns, potentially it may make sense for [chip] packets to have to carry health warnings."

The UK crisp-makers' industry body, the Snack, Nut and Crisp Manufacturers Association (Snacma), says that it is working on ways to reduce the level of acrylamide in crisps, as they have already reduced the levels of salt to be in line with the government targets.

In February, a laboratory study in the journal Plos One reported that when rats were fed on a diet of commercially made crisps, their brains showed marked differences in activity from normal when studied with high-tech imaging equipment.

Areas of the brain that are normally associated with sleeping were inhibited, while areas associated with body movement showed significantly more activity than usual, according to food chemists at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, Germany. Changes like these in humans may cause them to display hyperactive behavior.

The scans also revealed heightened activity in areas of the brain that are linked to hunger. Overstimulation in these regions is associated with hyperphagia, the clinical term for abnormal overeating, said the study. Meaning chips do in fact overall make you eat more. 

While clinical tests would be required in humans to confirm that this effect is similar, it is not considered ethically appropriate to require people to over-eat chips, even though many people already seem to do so.

Another other harmful effect of crisp consumption in children is tooth decay. They are one of the worst things for your teeth, says Dr. Nigel Carter, chief executive of the British Dental Health Foundation, they can stick to the surface for hours.

 "On the ingredients list, the sugar content appears to be low. But that list recognizes only simple sugars and ignores more complex forms, such as carbohydrates, which the mouth breaks down into sugars." 

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