The Frontal Cortex

The Neuroscience of McGriddles

A few days ago, I had my first McGriddle. While I usually try to avoid McDonald’s meat products – that’s the benevolent influence of my wife, who rightly insists on eating humanely raised animal products – I was stuck in an airport and couldn’t bear the idea of another yogurt parfait. The “standard” McGriddle consists of bacon, a brick of bright yellow egg and neon orange American cheese served between two small pancakes that have been injected with maple syrup (or some sort of maple simulacrum) so that they taste extremely sweet and yet aren’t sticky to hold. The top of the griddle pancake is embossed with the McDonald’s logo.

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Needless to say, the McGriddle is eerily delicious. If the human tongue has a secret password, then this sweet, salty and fatty breakfast sandwich is the code. The problem of course, is that all the deliciousness comes with a steep caloric cost: every McGriddle has 420 calories, 15 grams of sugar and 80 percent of the recommended daily allowance of cholesterol. As Elizabeth Kolbert recently described in the New Yorker, this preference for bacon wrapped in sweet pancakes is an unfortunate side-effect of human evolution:

Brains are calorically demanding organs. Our distant ancestors had small ones. Australopithecus afarensis, for example, who lived some three million years ago, had a cranial capacity of about four hundred cubic centimetres, which is roughly the same as a chimpanzee’s. Modern humans have a cranial capacity of about thirteen hundred cubic centimetres. How, as their brains got bigger, did our forebears keep them running? According to what’s known as the Expensive Tissue Hypothesis, early humans compensated for the energy used in their heads by cutting back on the energy used in their guts; as man’s cranium grew, his digestive tract shrank. This forced him to obtain more energy-dense foods than his fellow-primates were subsisting on, which put a premium on adding further brain power. The result of this self-reinforcing process was a strong taste for foods that are high in calories and easy to digest; just as it is natural for gorillas to love leaves, it is natural for people to love funnel cakes.

It’s now possible to observe this preference at work in the brain. While the McGriddle is a tasty creation, the most pleasurable thing about the sandwich isn’t the pancake or the bacon: it’s the calories. According to a recent paper in Neuron, the brain also receives rewarding input from metabolic processes that have nothing to do with the tongue. When you eat at McDonald’s, a big part of the pleasure comes from the fact that the food is sustenance, fuel, energy. Even mediocre food is a little rewarding.

The scientists at Duke came up with a clever paradigm for isolating this more indirect rewarding pathway: they studied mice without a functional TRPM5 channel, which is essential for detecting sweetness. As a result, these mutant mice showed no immediate preference for sugar water.

But here comes the cool part of the experiment. The scientists then allowed the mice to spend some time with the sugar water and normal water. After a few hours, it became clear that the mutant mice greatly preferred the sugar water, even though they couldn’t taste the sugar. (A control experiment with sucralose, an artificial sweetener, demonstrated that the rats were responding to the caloric intake, not the sweet taste.)

Finally, the scientists measured dopamine levels (via in vivo microdialysis) in the nucleus accumbens (a brain area that processes rewards) in the mutant mice and normal mice.* While normal mice exhibited an increase in dopamine in response to both fake sugar and real sugar – the reward was the sweet taste – the mutant mice only demonstrated a dopaminergic spike when consuming genuine sugar water. What they enjoyed were the calories. As the authors conclude:

We showed that dopamine-ventral striatum reward systems, previously associated with the detection and assignment of reward value to palatable compounds, respond to the caloric value of sucros in the absence of taste receptor signaling. Thus, these brain pathways…also perform previously unidentified functions that include the detection of gastro-intestinal and metabolic signals.

This is a troubling idea, since it reveals the very deep biological roots underlying the obesity epidemic. Let’s imagine, for instance, that some genius invented a reduced calorie bacon product that tasted exactly like bacon, except it had 50 percent fewer calories. It would obviously be a great day for civilization. But this research suggests that such a pseudo-bacon product, even though it tasted identical to real bacon, would actually give us much less pleasure. Why? Because it made us less fat. Because energy is inherently delicious. Because we are programmed to enjoy calories.

Comments

  1. #1 becca
    July 21, 2009

    I actually wonder how much of this wouldn’t be applicable to the bacon. Sucrose produces a (potentially dramatic) noticeable effect in subjective energy levels- I’ve always presumed this to be correlated with the actual blood sugar spike of foods with a high glycemic index.

  2. #2 Mozglubov
    July 21, 2009

    This is a similar result to what you posted a while ago regarding the neuronal response to diet drinks – that we our taste buds were relatively fooled by the artificial sweeteners, but not our guts. I have tried to use that result to convince my girlfriend to order a normal soft drink when we go to the movies (I find I actually can taste the difference between diet and non-diet drinks, and I don’t like diet drinks), but she still isn’t convinced. Now I’ve got another study to reference in my argument!

  3. #3 Ryan Shewcraft
    July 21, 2009

    This is along similar lines to your previous post about sports drinks and athletic performance. Your brain can tell when you’re getting real energy and is not fooled by a sugary taste.

    Maybe the solution for our health is to recognize our biological need for calories and adjust accordingly. Rather than starving yourself to diet or “eat healthy” you should focus on eating non-empty calories. Put down the donut and eat some fruit and nuts. That way, you’ll be getting some nutrition with your calories rather than just empty, non-sustainable energy.

    In addition, this makes me wonder if the brain can distinguish between different types of calories, or do we love them all equally?

  4. #4 Heather Pooler
    July 21, 2009

    Not everyone enjoys this kind of food. A lot of people find this food repulsive. When I have been in a situation where healthy foods are limited and I have eaten something just to subside my hunger, I have always felt ill afterwards. Especially from eating Mcdonald’s fare. The nutritional value of this food feels useless and poisonous in my body. I argue that yes dopamine levels are being triggered by those who eat mcdonald’s or diet soda, but in the same way that they are for drug addicts. These are foods that people have become use to eating and attached to eating because of culture and capitalist media master minding. I think that having to eat such foods as the mcgriddle regularly signifies an addiction. Also, sugar water and a mcgriddle are worlds apart. I would choose the sugar water as the healthier food source.

  5. #5 Julie Simon Lakehomer
    July 21, 2009

    However, let’s not forget the pleasure-in-knowledge you reported in your last post. Perhaps our delight in actually knowing about the pleasure of energy can compensate to some extent for the sweet, salty, fatty pleasure we’re trying to resist.

  6. #6 The Healthy Librarian
    July 21, 2009

    Well said Heather Pooler!!

    Our inborn addiction to fat, sugar, and salt has been co-opted by the food industry. Read Dr. David Kessler’s “The End of Overeating”.

    Not everyone enjoys the McDonald’s junk food sort of fare–it’s a habit and tastes and preferences can change.

    I’m healthier, thinner, happier, think better, and have more energy on real food–not loaded with processed carbs & fat.

    We need to stop rationalizing why we’re fated to eat junk.

    Face it–Real food takes time to shop for, prepare, and for the most part, you have to make it yourself.

    And as for the “gut” thing–mine works 100% better on real unprocessed food–not on meat, fat, white flour & sugar.

  7. #7 Ben McAllister
    July 21, 2009

    While it’s clear this study tells us something about how our body/brain reacts to sugar, it doesn’t necessarily imply that our body is simply reacting to “the calories.” Sugar, like any food, is more than a source of calories. The first commenter made reference to the glycemic index and I think she’s on the right track. Sugar is an easily digestible carbohydrate. It makes sense for the body to crave (and reward us for eating) such immediate sources of energy. I’m no expert, but Gary Taubes has written pretty convincingly about “how carbohydrates affect insulin and blood sugar and in turn fat metabolism and appetite.”

    He writes further that “the regulation of appetite and weight in the human body happens to be almost inconceivably complex, and the experimental tools we have to study it are still remarkably inadequate.” This is from his well-known 2002 NYT Magazine piece “What If It’s All Been a Big Fat Lie?”

    I’m not trying to turn this thread into a low-carb versus low-fat debate, but I do think it’s worth thinking about the particular effects sugar has on our bodies beyond simply delivering calories.

  8. #8 Jordon
    July 21, 2009

    What I’m drawing from this is that the only truly successful diets are those based on metacognition.

  9. #9 Anibal
    July 21, 2009

    If the ecological hypothesis of brain evolution is correct i can´t hardly imagine (with the actual food disposal in affluent societies) how future human´s brains might look like…

    To get it right, the morale of the story is that we can´t trick our brains with fake meals… isn´t?

  10. #10 Bill Mill
    July 21, 2009

    Excellent article, but I have one nit: Why use a loaded word by calling it an obesity “epidemic”? It seems to me that this phrase is a media creation, and that you have to stretch the definition of epidemic pretty far to arrive at classifying obesity as an epidemic.

  11. #11 El guapo
    July 21, 2009

    another psychoebobabble that esentially doesnt explain anything. As the umpire was told: you cannot be serious ..that the brain senses calorie content as delicious? try haggis? tripes? chicharrones? pork feet? or ears for that matter? all very caloric…and..delicious? ah i forgot kelp pudding..?
    so Mr. Lehrer: american anglos are responding to their deep evolutionary roots getting their-yours- big bottoms big eating MacGriddles? Certainly Charles Darwin forsaw MacGriddles in the future fitness landscape. No? Judging by your picture you could use some delicious caloric MacGriddles to enhance your landscape. Your quote of Ms Kolbert: “The result of this self-reinforcing process was a strong taste for foods that are high in calories and easy to digest; just as it is natural for gorillas to love leaves, it is natural for people to love funnel cakes”. However, the reference to gorillas and leaves is infelicitous at best. Been around gorillas lately…? dont, their digestion is nor easy neither aromatic. Just on account of the stink I would have opted for a different diet, if i was a gorilla, i mean. I am a skunk though.

  12. #12 Lance
    July 21, 2009

    Flavor.
    http://www.rense.com/general7/whyy.htm
    If it was legal, McD’s could make McGriddles out of cellulose and silicon oil and we wouldn’t tell the difference. I look forward to the new Mineral Oil guiltless french fry (and associated GI nightmares)

  13. #13 jhn
    July 22, 2009

    Add me to the list of people who find McGriddles to be repulsive. And I love junk food.

  14. #14 Stephanie
    July 22, 2009

    It makes sense that our ancestral eating habits still linger with us. Considering the inconsistent access to protein or fat in our historical diet, I believe that we were biologically designed to horde these items when available. The issue is that our instinctual drive is no longer necessary in our world of fast-food and grocery chains. Not to even mention how little the food we eat now resembles what our ancestors ate. Essentially, our gut has not evolved as quickly as our cultural and technological world.

    What was of particular interest to me though was the mention of dopamine; an integral part of the reward pathway and addiction. Would it be too far of a stretch to claim that people can become addicted to fast-food? I truly believe that only someone living under a rock now a days can claim to know nothing of its negative health affects, yet fast-food chains thrive. You could claim this is because of its cheap cost and convenience, but I think it is also because people simply crave this sweet-fatty-salty concoction.

  15. #15 el guapo
    July 22, 2009

    stephanie, # 14, yes you are caving in the ebobabble, we are all addicted to something, something; this blog for example..gimme a break

  16. #16 K
    July 23, 2009

    Heather – I agreed with your statements that some people find it repulsive…until you started babbling about how it is solely the media’s fault.

    As a biologist, it makes sense to me that fatty foods are naturally higher in calories – the brain does use over half your energy stores, and primitive humans had difficulty knowing where that next meal was coming from. Stock up how you can, when you can.

    The difference is that the higher calorie and modified foods that are available now are unnatural. I don’t think everything that is unnatural is not good, but when we satisfy natural primitive urges with these unnatural concoctions needs to be evaluated. The nutritional value of 400 calories of almonds (which is only about 3oz, making it more calorie-dense than the almost 6oz McGriddle) is much higher than that of the McGriddle (with fiber and vitamins in addition to simple calories).

    Natural fatty foods tend to pack with them additional nutrients, and it makes sense our brains want them. To dismiss this as being a result of the media displays a blatant ignorance and dismissal of facts.

    While I will grant you the media pressures us to eat the foods that are being manufactured a) people should be held responsible for their own eating habits, and b) how much television did the scientists subject the mice to that made them want the higher calorie water?!

    In terms of the article, I have to wonder how applicable to humans in developed countries. There is really no lack of calorie intake in America (and I also disagree with calling it an epidemic – fewer than 10% of obese individuals are so because of genetic or causes they cannot help), so I would guess that we are now operating on our taste buds because we are taking in more calories than we need – our brain probably wouldn’t notice a drop if we kept eating. The only difference I notice between nothing but eating junk food all day and nothing but vegetables the next is that the second day I feel less disgusted with myself. :-)

  17. #17 tiffany
    July 23, 2009

    But we are normal mice, not mutant mice. I would think our reaction to the 50% calorie McGriddle would be dopaminilicious, initially.

    Of course, this pathway must’ve evolved for the cases when our tastes are uninformative or wrong, suggesting we SHOULD be able to see this effect in normal mice. Does ‘sweet’ continue to trump the metabolic signals over time (as would seem to be the case in diet soda drinkers?) Maybe it matters how many calories the mice are getting in another way or what percentage of the diet is the fake stuff?

    There are other problems with non-natural foods, of course, but I don’t think you can conclude that substitutes are categorically doomed yet.

  18. #18 Water meter
    July 23, 2009

    I think it’s worth thinking about the particular effects sugar has on our bodies beyond simply delivering calories.

  19. #19 Manda
    July 24, 2009

    Our ‘big brains’ did not evolve on Mcfood. Wild meat is low in saturates and we would have eaten fish, fruit, organic vegetables, whole foods.
    Additives and sugar (and stress) can create addictive eating due to their effects; overuling a natural appetite which should relate to the deeper short and long-term mind and body health needs – perhaps idealistically within a healthy ‘lifestyle’.

  20. #20 Manda
    July 24, 2009

    I must say some people’s brains seem to run on metaphysical willpower, love and also ‘purer’ kinds of drugs than agrochemicals, sugar, food additives(or calories).

    The brain likes glucose, stress creates fatigue; the immediate sugar solution can be addictive and stresses the adrenals aswell, plus insulin resistance can start. Collect your children or salary as you pass go and start again or try fresh cherries, nuts and gluten-free toast with blackcurrant tea in your lunch box.

  21. #21 Patrick
    July 24, 2009

    While I find this line of research both compelling and disturbing, I do not think that a taste for calorie-rich foods is inevitable, since it seems relatively clear that the food culture one lives in has a large degree of influence on one’s tastes. Thus, growing up eating nutrient-rich food that has a moderate amount of fat content may make it easier to avoid those fatty McGriddles later in life.

    As an example of what I mean, consider the fact that recent Chinese immigrants to the US often complain that the food here is too rich for their tastes. Anecdotally, I can confirm this phenomenon – I studied in China for about half a year, and when I came back to the US, I found that food that I used to enjoy prior to living in China sat heavily in my stomach. In contrast, many US-born students who just arrived in China would complain that they never felt quite full, since the food there is much less rich than they were used to. Thus, the brain might grow accustomed to getting its calories in a certain form, making those calories more intrinsically satisfying than others.

    Of course, this is all conjecture. However, the fact that many people (myself included) find McGriddles and other high-fat foods disgusting indicates that food culture has a lot of say on what sorts of foods we enjoy later in life.

  22. #22 si
    July 25, 2009

    errr…. referring to the sugar water experiment with mice. When did we ever objectively know what mice find sweet and at what concentrations they find sugar water sweet? Are we sure we know this?

  23. #23 jeff
    July 27, 2009

    How can you draw such expansive conclusions from something so culturally specific? Could it not be that the inherent attractiveness of this product is a result of the cultural conditioning that is the North American diet? Or are the eating preferences of the majorty of the world somehow invalid? Not many Chinese or Indian people could tolerate more than two bites of this product. McDonalds in Australia and New Zealand don’t even sell it – and you can bet your ass they would if people there would buy it. If this food is a response to such a primal force, why is its attractiveness not shared outside one specific population with specific tastes?

  24. #24 ekcol
    July 28, 2009

    @23 “How can you draw such expansive conclusions from something so culturally specific?”

    Culturally specific to mice?

  25. #25 Chadrick
    July 28, 2009

    I read this when it was originally posted and just this morning gave into the urge. I bought and ate a McGriddle. Evolution: 1 Conscious Will: 0.

  26. #26 Richard Eis
    July 30, 2009

    The research is interesting biut needs to be seen in context. This is only one side of the coin. I would like to see research on what evolutionary elements are in place to stop people overeating.
    Personally i would find the mcGriddle far too rich. Like eating too many sweets makes you feel ill. I think the body has to get used to calorie dense foods and the ability of the body to change to meet expectiations needs to be looked at too.

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  28. #28 krmB120
    September 8, 2009

    While I am sure the study holds true with the mice, I am not sure I fully agree with the idea of it holding completely true with humans. Yes, I do tend to eat high calorie foods very often and usually prefer them over a lower calorie food (I am also very active) but I do not think a larger amount of calories in a food by its self would make the food more pleasurable. For instance, eating a big chocolate chip doughnut for breakfast would be a lot less pleasurable (and probably a whole lot more sickening) then eating a big bowl of my favorite cereal. I feel the nutrients in the food as well as whether or not a person (or mouse) has had a decent amount of sugar or calories recently. For example, an hour after eating a giant buffet dinner I would most likely choose the less filling item for dessert. Or if I was at a party with pieces of candy laying around eventually I would start to feel like I am getting to much sugar and eat something not as sweet.

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