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The Science And Psychology Behind Why We Can't Resist Snacks

21/05/2017 20:31 | Updated 22 May 2017
carotur via Getty Images

When I was approached to make a TV programme about salty snacks I was intrigued.

I think of myself as a healthy eater, but I am very aware that I often grab a bag of crisps particularly on a busy day. As I sat and chatted in a bar with the programme makers they explained that as part of their research they had just been speaking a neuroscientist who had scanned the brains of volunteers and discovered that even looking at a bowl of crisps provoked a reaction in the brain that was as strong as alcohol for an alcoholic. So what is it about the combination of crunch, carb, fat and salt that is making Britain a nation of snackers?

Snacks are a £2.8 billion industry in the UK and we are snacking more and more often.

I definitely wanted to find out more.

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Day one of the filming, I found myself on a crisp production line in Yorkshire.

Here you can be in no doubt that this is a massive and clever industry. I watched as a potato was dropped onto the production line and just 14 minutes later it emerged as a bag of crisps. It was still warm! And they take a picture of every single crisp before it goes into the bags. Any crisp that isn't perfect is removed. This is an industry that has perfected the art of making us come back for more. They have teams devoted to developing new flavours every year and they know we are very picky about our crisps.

The TV team asked me to keep a snack diary. Reviewing the videos I recorded, there was a clear pattern. There's one clip of me in a petrol station at 7pm in the evening which seems to sum it all up. I am clutching a packet of Wotsits and explaining that I have skipped lunch, I had no intention of buying a bag of crisps, but as I went to pay for petrol I saw the bags of salty snacks and I couldn't resist it. The neuroscientist was right. Just the sight of a bag of crisps when I was tired and hungry seemed to be irresistible.

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When I went to film with Dr Tony Goldstone, the neuroscientist from Imperial College London, he was able to offer me more insights. His latest research suggests that if we eat high carb food, like crisps, it protects our brain from some stress. So, eating a bag of crisps might just make it easier to deal with potentially stressful situations.

Much of the most fascinating academic research on eating snacks has explored whether distraction plays a part in how we eat. Professor Marion Hetherington at Leeds University explained to me that "the double whammy" is to sit in front of a screen at the movies and have an unlimited supply of crisps or popcorn. If they are in a large bowl, not a small individual bag, and we are concentrating on the movie, we just won't stop.

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My friends have asked me whether making the programme has changed the way I eat, and I would definitely say it has. I now have much more awareness of what might trigger a snack attack, and accordingly my five bags a week habit is much more under control. I also know that when I do snack on a packet of crisps, if I am distracted or stressed I am likely to eat more than I need as I learned that if you buy a larger sharing bag you will probably eat it all in one sitting, nobody ever seals up a bag of crisps to eat the next day! I have also become far more conscious of my salt intake and try to monitor how much I eat on a daily basis. But snacking is a very difficult habit to stop, especially with a busy lifestyle, I think I am just far more aware of what it is that I snack on now.

Secrets of our Favourite Snacks is on Channel 4 on Tuesday 23 May at 8pm

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