Why you bought those holiday Oreos

Dr. Jen Kerns

Dr. Jen Kerns

Remember how, a few weeks ago in my “Pavlov’s dog” blog post, I talked about how I had every intention of eating a low carbohydrate diet as I entered Trader Joe’s one morning but somehow walked out of the store with a bag full of peanut butter and jelly chocolate truffles?

Food manufacturers know how to take advantage of our primitive brains’ drive to eat highly rewarding foods, and they process Mother Nature into sugar/fat/salt laden products that we crave and adore. Even tomato soup, which you’d hope were “healthy,” has the perfect amount of sugar added to make it as palatable as possible to the masses (and thereby increase consumption and the dollars pouring into the food manufacturer) – you can learn more about this sugar “bliss point” (and much more) in this 2015 BBC documentary entitled The Truth About Sugar.

OK, so food manufacturers create crave-worthy processed products like Doritos and Oreos that light up our brains and make us want them. I mean WANT them. But it’s not just the manufacturing companies who are using brain science to play on our weaknesses. The food retailers have their own strategies, too. One is the very tactic that Trader Joe’s used to trick me into buying that bag of chocolates (notice I claim I was “tricked,” though of course I know I made that decision on my own no matter how impulsive it might’ve been): they placed the highly rewarding food at eye level and on the end of an aisle rather than buried somewhere inside. Visual food cues make us want food, as I talked about last week, so they place the foods they want us to buy in the prime viewing spots.

This morning I came upon an example of how one local grocery store took this strategy to the next level. I was walking along the perimeter of the store through the produce section, surrounded by fresh fruits and vegetables, when I came across this display:

Flashing lights twinkle and grab your attention — just in case the huge ski chalet full of cookies sitting smack dab in the middle of a major thoroughfare doesn’t hit you in the face.  Flashy signage using lights or bright colors draw even more attention than simply placing the items on an end aisle where they’ll be noticed.

Creating a sense of scarcity also tricks you into buying things you might not otherwise buy. “Only available through the holidays! Don’t miss out! Get ‘em before they’re gone!”

You might also notice that grocery staples like milk are intentionally placed at the rear of the store, thereby forcing you to walk through a myriad of other processed products that your executive brain might not want you to buy, but that your primitive brain — whose entire job is to seek calories and pleasure — WANTS.

Impulse items also tend to line the exits: right when your willpower muscle has been thoroughly fatigued, you’re forced to stand 12 inches away from highly rewarding candy bars, ice cold sodas, and bags of chips as you wait your turn to check out. Even if you’ve come to the store armed with a plan and a list that you stick to, noticing (and actively using your willpower to avoid) other junk foods while shopping (and perhaps trying to simultaneously mind an — ahem — active toddler?) leaves your self control depleted and significantly increases the chance that you’ll impulsively grab one of those feel-good items on your way out.

So, if you grabbed those holiday Oreos, this means your primitive brain is working perfectly normally and that the food manufacturers and retailers have done their jobs well. This works out beautifully if you’re an investor in Nabisco, but not so well if you’re a consumer who is trying to manage your weight! But knowledge is power, so now that you know some of the many ways that they trick you, you might be ever-so-slightly better prepared to avoid the traps the next time you run to the store for some milk. Don’t go hungry. Bring a list of items that your executive brain has thoughtfully chosen in advance, and buy only those items. And if you notice a particularly flashy display, take a photo of it for me and post it in the comments below!

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