Sell fatty food in plain packaging, says prize-winning neuroscientist

Henry Bodkin
Fast food is often marketed using bright colours - AP

Fatty foods should be sold in plain packaging to help the battle against obesity, a leading neuroscientist has said.

Wolfram Shultz, who was yesterday revealed as the joint winner of a €1 million (£864,600) prize for a lifetime’s work understanding the brain’s decision making process, said the colourful wrapping and attractive advertising of calorie-rich foods triggered chemicals which encouraged people to overeat.

The Cambridge University academic is one of the pioneers of the understanding of how dopamine functions as a “reward” agent in the brain, and how humans learn to adapt behaviour to prompt the release of the chemical messenger.

We should not advertise, propagate or encourage the unnecessary ingestion of calories

Professor Wolfram Shultz, University of Cambridge

He said that thoughts and senses associated with high-calorie food prompted a dopamine response and was contributing to unhealthy diets.

“We should not advertise, propagate or encourage the unnecessary ingestion of calories,” he said.

“There should be some way of regulating the desire to get more calories. We don’t need these calories.

“Colourful 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.”

Schultz shares the €1m Brain prize with Peter Dayan, director of the Gatsby Computational Neuroscience Unit at UCL, and Ray Dolan, director of the Max Planck UCL Centre for Computational Psychiatry and Ageing.

Together, the scientists have led the understanding of how the brain uses rewards to learn and shape behaviour.

Their work has also illuminated the study of behavioural economics and how people act in business situations, as well as the treatment of addictions such as gambling, drug addiction, and compulsive behaviour.

Thirty years ago, Schultz was studying neurons in the brain that release a chemical messenger called dopamine.

He found that when animals were given a reward in the form of fruit juice, the neurons fired in appreciation.

But further experiments revealed the brain’s reward system to be more complex.

When animals were taught to associate particular images with an impending fruit juice treat, their neurons fired on seeing the pictures instead of when the drink was taken.

If no drink appeared, the reaction of the neurons gradually faded over time.

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