There are so many processed food products available today that understands how difficult it is for many consumers to avoid them. Sometimes even products we don’t think of as processed prove to be when we take a look at their ingredient lists. Junk food can be found in our fast food establishments and our grocery stores and many food retailers in between. The term is no longer appropriate for one or two food categories, but can be applied to many. As the obesity epidemic becomes more of a pressing problem each day, we have been left to wonder if the widespread proliferation of processed foods has actually turned into an addiction for some consumers.

A new study out of Boston Children’s Hospital has found that the consumption of highly processed carbohydrates can, in fact, cause excess hunger and stimulate the brain regions that are involved in reward and cravings. It was noted that in addition to reward and craving, this is the region of the brain that is also linked with substance abuse and dependence. The study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition on June 26, 2013, investigates how food intake is regulated by dopamine-containing pleasure centers of the brain.

The research suggests that limiting these “high-glycemic index” foods could help the obese population avoid overeating.

In order to conduct the study, the researchers set out to measure blood glucose levels and hunger as well as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to observe brain activity during the four hours following a meal. This is the time period that influences eating behavior during the next meal.

Twelve overweight or obese men consumed test meals designed as two different milkshakes with the same calories, taste and sweetness. Essentially both were the same with the only difference being that one included high-glycemic index carbohydrates and the other contained low-glycemic index carbohydrates.

After participants consumed the high-glycemic index milkshake, they experienced an initial surge in blood sugar levels, followed by sharp crash four hours later. This was caused by a decrease in blood glucose that is associated with excessive hunger as well as the intense activation of the brain region involved in addictive behaviors. The idea that high-glycemic index foods are addictive is certainly controversial and further study is necessary in order to arrive at a definitive conclusion.

In the meantime, thinks we should all familiarize ourselves with high-glycemic index foods even more thoroughly. Highly processed carbohydrates include white bread (burger buns at fast food restaurants, French toast sticks from a box or fast food, plain bagels), white potatoes and white potato products (including french fries, potato chips, instant mashed potatoes or frozen potatoes), donuts, onion rings, instant oatmeal, boxed macaroni and cheese, soda … the list goes on. When we eat these processed products, our brain tells us to eat more. Whether or not they can be labeled “addictive” remains to be seen, but regardless of the label, consuming processed foods isn’t a healthy habit. Our brains seem to get that message loud and clear.