If the way forwards is to reduce the amount of sugar in food then one idea that has been discussed is to make sugar-rich foods less attractive. Instead of bright packaging, sometimes adorned with cartoon characters (and designed to appeal to children), some industry experts argue that plain packaging should be used instead.
The renewed suggestion for plain packaging comes from Wolfram Schultz
, who is a professor of neuroscience at the University of Cambridge. Professor Schultz approaches the issue from a psychological perspective, looking at the brain’s reward system. The academic puts forward the notion that colorful wrapping and attractive advertising for calorie-rich foods works in a way that encourages people to buy items. In other words, it is not only the appeal of the food, or sugar addiction, that sells the food, it is also the appeal of the packaging
that acts as a driver for consumers.
This relates to Schultz’s work on the chemical messenger called dopamine
. In the brain, dopamine functions as a neurotransmitter and the brain includes several dopamine pathways. One pathway plays a major role in reward-motivated behavior. In fact, most types of rewards increase the level of dopamine in the brain.
Early work showed that when a person is given fruit juice, dopamine activates. Initially it was thought the fruit juice itself was solely responsible for the trigger. However, more in-depth analysis showed the brain’s reward center to be more complex. When people were shown particular images, with an impending fruit juice treat, their neurons fired in a similar way upon seeing the pictures. In essence, the power of advertising can trigger a similar effect as consuming the food itself.
Interviewed recently by The Guardian
, Professor Schultz said: “We should not advertise, propagate or encourage the unnecessary ingestion of calories. There should be some way of regulating the desire to get more calories. We don’t need these calories.”
The researcher added: “Colorful wrapping of high energy foods of course makes you buy more of that stuff and once you have it in your fridge, it’s in front of you every time you open the fridge and ultimately you’re going to eat it and eat too much.”
This is supported by The Obesity Health Alliance
, which has indicated: “Research shows advertising greatly influences the food children choose to eat, and with one-third of children overweight or obese by their 11th birthday, we need to protect them from relentless junk food marketing in all walks of life.”
Whether such a change could ever be regulated upon is unlikely. However, curbs could be introduced to avoid advertising sugar-rich foods in attractive packaging at times when children watch television, for example.