Potato Chip Science: Why you really cannot eat just one

Norman Byrd's picture

That old Lay's Potato Chips slogan, "Betcha can't eat just one," has been found to be trues: A recent study provides the science to prove it.

Ever sat down with a a bag of chips and crunched one? Then another? And then another -- until you reach into the bag and find it empty? And we're not talking about some little snack bag of a few ounces of chips. We're talking the 8- or 12- or 16-ounce bags. Well, Science Daily reported this week that scientists in Germany have discovered that there is a reason for that inability to eat just one -- or even just a few -- potato chips.

According to a research team at FAU Erlangen-Nuremberg, in Erlangen, Germany, there is something innate in potato chips that drives many individuals to continue to eat potato chips even when they're not alleviating hunger.

Dr. Tobias Hoch, Ph.D., the leader of the team, presented the findings of his study at the 245th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS). He noted that the research could impact a condition known as "hedonic hyperphagia."

"That's the scientific term for 'eating to excess for pleasure, rather than hunger,'" Hoch explained. "It's recreational over-eating that may occur in almost everyone at some time in life. And the chronic form is a key factor in the epidemic of overweight and obesity that here in the United States threatens health problems for two out of every three people."

That is not an exaggeration. Two out of every three people in the U. S. are considered overweight or even obese. Such recreational eating as Hoch spoke about only contributes to the problem.

The research team for Hoch's potato chip study where one group of rats were given potato chips to eat while another was provided standard rat chow. The scientists then used high-tech magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) devices to scan the rats' brains, hoping to find differences in activity between the groups.

They then studied three groups of laboratory rats, having one group eat potato chips supplementary to their diet of regular rat chow, another eat carbohydrates and fats along with their regular diet, and the third group eat powdered rat chow in addition to their regular chow. Although the groups ate about the same amount of each supplement to their diet, they were more excited about eating the chips, even though the fats and carbohydrates supplement contained the same amount of the substances as did the potato chips. The rats pursued the powdered chow least actively. Researchers also noted heightened activity among the rats after eating the chips.

The potato chips-eating rats saw the largest increase in activity in the brain areas associated with reward and addiction. There were also increased activity in areas associated with eating, sleep, and activity and motion.

Hoch noted that something clearly made the rats desire potato chips more.

So how to explain individuals that don't like snack foods like chips (even though they appear to stimulate the reward center of the brain) or simply refuse to eat them? Hoch stated that some people may not have the reward center of their brain activated by chips and/or snack food. For those that do but are still able to ignore the impulse to eat such foods, they might simply have the willpower to refuse to eat them.

Hoch is hoping that further research may find the molecular triggers that produce potato chip response in rats. Identifying those triggers could go a long way into developing drugs and nutrient additives that can be used as blockers to sweets and snack foods, major contributors to the overweight and obesity epidemic.

The scientist also noted that there was no evidence at present to suggest that additives might also be developed that would trigger the reward center of the brain when an individual consumes healthy but relatively unpopular foods (like broccoli and Brussels sprouts).

So there you have it. The good news in all this is that scientists have discovered that eating potato chips continually reinforces the reward center of the brain. It is why a person with a bag of chips in front of them can't stop eating at just one or a couple.

The bad news is: They still don't know what it is about potato chips that triggers such an eating response.

And you just know the people over at Frito-Lay Brands, the makers of Lay's brand potato chips, are simply beside themselves with self-congratulatory glee. The slogan "Betcha can't eat just one" first appeared in the early 1960s, so perhaps a little credit for advertising intuitiveness is in order.

(Read: 10 crazy flavored potato chips for National Potato Chip Day)

(photo credit: Evan-Amos, Wikimedia Commons)


Interesting research, but I note this is a conference paper which has not yet been peer-reviewed or published in a legitimate journal yet. The net result might be less compelling than the press release suggests.

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