Plain boxes = healthier eating

By Mike Pomranz
Updated May 24, 2017
junk food packaging
Credit: © AntonMatveev / Getty Images

Junk food might not be “brain food,” but apparently it can still help you win the €1 million Brain Prize awarded for outstanding contribution to European neuroscience – that is, if you use your brain to talk about ways to get people to eat less junk food.

On Monday, three scientists – Peter Dayan, Ray Dolan and Wolfram Schultz – were jointly announced as this year’s winners of the annual Brain Prize award for their work analyzing the brain’s reward system. According to The Brain Prize website, these experts were chosen because their research “has far-reaching implications for the understanding of human behaviour, including disorders of decision-making in conditions such as gambling, drug addiction, compulsive behaviour and schizophrenia.” But at a press conference announcing the winners, Schultz, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, chose to target junk food specifically. “We should not advertise, propagate or encourage the unnecessary ingestion of calories,” Schultz said according to The Guardian. “There should be some way of regulating the desire to get more calories. We don’t need these calories.”

Schultz would seem to know a thing or two about the topic: He’s been studying the inner workings of the brain’s reward system for over three decades. When asked at the press conference about his thoughts on how to reduce obesity, his suggestion was to take the same approach to junk food that some countries have already taken with cigarettes: sell them in plain packaging. “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,” he said. He later emphasized the importance of reducing these signals that cause people over indulge “as we cannot do anything against the brain’s signal that makes us happy when we eat more.”

The three scientists will officially be awarded the prize on May 4, which, ironically, is a long time for their brains’ reward centers to process the victory – something Schultz even joked about. “The Brain Prize is a fantastic reward for our research group. I can hear our dopamine neurons jumping up and down,” he said according to Cambridge News. Maybe they should present him the award in plain packaging.