The Real Reason Fast Food Tastes So Good Is Not What You Think

We crave fast food for a variety of reasons, and not all of them have to do with taste alone. According to Fast Food Nation, 45% of people in the UK and 44% of U.S. survey respondents said they liked the taste of fast food so much, they didn’t think they could give it up.

Fast food chain restaurants work hard to create that loyalty, and some of the reasons might surprise you. Spoiler alert: They’ve put big money into the largest factor (page 9).

1. Fast food presents the whole package

Customers line up at a McDonald's.
Customers line up at a McDonald’s. | TkKurikawa/iStock/Getty Images

Fast food cravings do come down to taste, initially. “People love the way [fast foods] taste,” New York University food studies professor Marion Nestle told Smithsonian Magazine. But that love doesn’t rest solely on your tongue. Manufacturers also put a lot of work into creating brand loyalty through marketing and advertisements. “Studies show that brand preference trumps taste every time,” Nestle added.

Next: And a lot of that also starts in childhood.

2. Nostalgia also comes into play

A woman enjoys a hamburger.
A woman enjoys a hamburger. | Matthewennisphotography/iStock/Getty Images

If you have fond memories of digging into a Happy Meal as a kid, that plays into your craving for fast food, as an adult. Fast food restaurant chains pursue children as marketing targets for just that reason. In her book Why You Eat What You Eat, the neuroscientist Rachel Herz said that science explains Americans’ food choices.

Comfort foods, she says, are “usually foods that we ate as children because, when it comes to aromas and flavors, our first associations are the ones that stick most indelibly.” If you go back to McDonald’s again and again, you can also blame it on your conditioning.

Next: The restaurants themselves also draw you in.

3. Restaurant decor and packaging really matters

McDonald's exterior
McDonald’s | Tofumax/iStock/Getty Images

Pizza Hut, In-N-Out Burger, Wendy’s, McDonald’s, and Burger King all use yellow and red in their logos, and that comes as no accident. According to University of Rochester researchers, these hues grab consumers’ attention, stimulate appetite, increase speed, and make us crave fast food.

The bright and shiny atmosphere cultivated at many fast food restaurants also plays into our sense of comfort. That, in turn, makes us more likely to eat more and return again and again. And for you drive-thru aficionados, bad news. The packaging these companies use also feature those same colorful triggers.

Next: If you can just smell those fries already, that explains the next factor.

4. Fast food chains make you follow your nose

McDonald's french fries
McDonald’s french fries | Scott Olson/Getty Images

Restaurants know that scents can induce cravings, and they sometimes pump out artificial scents to draw you in, according to nutrition website Eat This, Not That. One company, ScentAir, actually manufactures artificial aromas that entice your nose. Not only will the smell of fryer get you in the door, it also makes the food more craveable.

According to University of Colorado Professor Tom Finger, both taste and smell contribute to flavor. Some scientists even believe smell creates up to 90% of flavor. The smell of fast food increases your sense of taste, causing the experience to also feel more enjoyable.

Next: Fast food restaurants also employ these techniques to contribute to taste.

5. These ingredients make you crave their taste

Chicken nuggets
Chicken nuggets | Chris Hondros/Getty Images

If you’ve ever made chicken nuggets at home and wondered why they don’t taste as good as McDonalds’, don’t blame your cooking. A lot of fast food contains ingredients that make food taste better. Chicken McNuggets, for example, contain a substance called yeast extract. According to the FDA, yeast extract is an ingredient that contains the naturally occurring version of monosodium glutamate, or MSG.

That ingredient enhances the taste of the food, keeping you coming back again and again. Other fast foods use similar ingredients, which also explains both why we can’t replicate them exactly and crave them even over healthier alternatives.

Next: The way our bodies work also has something to do with it.

6. Your ancestors also play a role

woman eating steak in a restaurant
A woman eats a steak. |

According to Science ABC, humans’ craving for “unhealthy” foods goes back to our earliest ancestors. Before modern civilization, humans’ nomadic lifestyles wired our brains and metabolisms  seek out high-fat, high-calorie meals. That also persists today, deep in our genetic makeup. A lot of fast foods speak to these primal urges, since our bodies still think we need more than we do.

Next: Not to mention, some of these flavors have the following property.

7. The flavor combo actually made rats addicted

Rat among laboratory glasses
Lab rat | JanPietruszka/iStock/Getty Images

And the phenomenon doesn’t end with humans. Experiments carried out on lab rats showed that when researchers fed them a diet of 25% sugar, the rats became anxious when they removed it. Their teeth chattered and they got the shakes, much like people experience when going through opiate withdrawal.

The researchers also noticed long-lasting changes in brain chemistry when they fed rats a diet with a combination of sweet, salty, and fat. That might point to changes in people’s brain chemistry when they eat that type of food consistently.

Next: Certain hormones also support that hypothesis.

8. Blame your fast food cravings on your brain

Junk food
Junk food | Mukhina1/iStock/Getty Images

According to Science ABC, junk foods contain an all-star list of feel-good ingredients. Those include sugars, calories, trans and saturated fats, but not a lot of vitamins, minerals, or fiber. These foods release the neurotransmitters dopamine and oxytocin, which induce relaxation, pleasure, and enjoyment. We call them “comfort foods,” for a reason — because fast food actually makes us feel better.

Next: Fast food scientists also have a name for this phenomenon.

9. Fast food hits the ‘bliss point’

McDonald's burger and fries
McDonald’s burger and fries | Johnnieshin/iStock/Getty Images

Food industry professionals call the equilibrium of salt, sugar, and fat ingredients the “bliss point.” Michael Moss’ Pulitzer Prize-winning book Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us explained that processed-food manufacturers invest lots of money finding it. That includes a combination of these ingredients, marketing to get them into your mouth, and all of the other factors mentioned above.

In short, the reason why we love fast food so much doesn’t just rest on one factor. Yes, foods that make us feel good don’t necessarily do good things to our bodies. But marketing, color, smell, and even our childhoods all play a role. Lots of thought — and science — goes into make us want fast food.

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