The bliss point of fats

2013-04-24 11:37

Did you know you have a ‘bliss point’ when just the right amount of salt, sugar and fat sends you over the moon? Pulitzer prize-winning author Michael Moss unveils exactly how products are engineered to have precisely the right levels to get you hooked.

Out of sugar, fat and salt, sugar is the most craveable.

We have 10 000 taste buds and they’re all wired for the sweet taste that goes directly, fast, into your brain. Kids are born liking sweet tastes.

Fat is in some ways even more powerful. It has twice the calories as sugar and it’s in all kinds of forms.

We’re not born liking salt. We develop a taste for it at about six months old.

The food industry methodically studies and controls the use of salt, sugar and fat.

The confidential industry records that came my way in the course of reporting this book show exactly how deliberate and calculating a matter this is.

To make a new soda guaranteed to create a craving requires the high math of regression analysis and intricate charts to plot what industry insiders call the ‘bliss point’, or the precise amount of sugar or fat or salt that will delight consumers.

At a laboratory in White Plains, New York, industry scientists who perform this alchemy walked me, step by step, through the process of engineering a new soda so I could see the creation of bliss firsthand.

To understand how the industry deploys fat in creating allure, I travelled to Madison, Wisconsin, home of the man who invented the pre-packaged convenience foods called Lunchables that radically changed the eating habits of millions of American kids.

He pulled out the company records that weighed the pros and cons of using real pepperoni versus pepperoni flavour and described the allure of fat-laden meat and cheese in cuddly terms like ‘product delivery cues’.

Both fat and salt are at the heart of Frito-Lay’s chip operations in Plano, Texas, and some of the company’s favourite methods for manipulating these two ingredients were relayed to me by a former chief scientist there named Robert I-San Lin.

These include the company reducing the ideal snack to a mathematical equation of taste and convenience (P = A1T + A2C + A3U - B1$ - B2H - B3Q), with P standing for Purchase and the allure of fat and salt easily overcoming H - the public’s health concerns.

I would find out that one of the most compelling, and unsettling, aspects of the role of salt, sugar, and fat in processed foods is the way the industry, in an effort to boost their power, has sought to alter their physical shape and structure.

Scientists at Nestlé are currently fiddling with the distribution and shape of fat globules to affect their absorption rate and, as it’s known in the industry, their ‘mouthfeel’.

At Cargill, the world’s leading supplier of salt, scientists are altering the physical shape of salt, pulverizing it into a fine powder to hit the taste buds faster and harder, improving what the company calls its ‘flavour burst’.

Sugar is being altered in myriad ways as well.

The sweetest component of simple sugar, fructose, has been crystallised into an additive that boosts the allure of foods.

Scientists have also created enhancers that amplify the sweetness of sugar to 200 times its natural strength.

Products are knowingly designed to maximise their allure.

Their packaging is tailored to excite our kids. Their advertising uses every psychological trick to overcome any logical arguments we might have for passing the product by.

Their taste is so powerful, we remember it from the last time we walked down the aisle and succumbed, snatching them up.

And above all else, their formulas are calculated and perfected by scientists who know very well what they are doing.

The most crucial point to know is that there is nothing accidental in the grocery store. All of this is done with a purpose.

And yet, knowing all this can be empowering. They may have salt, sugar, and fat on their side, but we, ultimately, have the power to make choices. After all, we decide what to buy. We decide how much to eat.

• Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss (R299, WH Allen)

Taste of more

A 1986 research report in the New England Journal of Medicine ranked potato chips as the No 1 reason for the spike in obesity rates in America.

Observers pointed out just how irresistible the chip was, including the way they were packaged.

The portion size stated on the chip bag – usually 28g – was irrelevant to how many chips a person might eat.

‘People generally don’t take one or two chips,’ said New York obesity expert Dr F Xavier Pi-Sunyer. ‘They have a whole bag.’

But that was only half the story. The chip’s ingredients were likely just as effective, if not more so, in leading people to overeat.

This starts with the coating of salt, which the tongue hits first, but there is much more inside the chip.

They are loaded with fat, which gives them most of their calories. It also delivers the sensation called ‘mouthfeel’ the moment they are chewed. As food scientists know, fat in the mouth is a lovely sensation, which the brain rewards with instant feelings of pleasure.

There is still more: Potato chips are also loaded with the kind of sugar the body gets from the starch in the potatoes.

Potatoes don’t taste sweet, but the glucose starts working on you like sugar the moment you bite into it.

The starch is readily absorbed, more quickly even than a similar amount of sugar.

The starch, in turn, causes the glucose levels in the blood to spike.

Recent research suggests glucose spikes will cause people to crave more food. Eat chips one hour, crave more the next.

No more wet-dog taste!

Among all the miracles that salt performs for the processed food industry, perhaps the most essential involves a plague that the industry calls ‘warmed-over-flavour’ (WOF).

WOF is caused by the oxidation of the fats in meat, which gives meat the taste of cardboard or, as some in the industry describe it, damp dog hair, when the meat is reheated after being precooked.

This is where salt comes in. Once WOF sets in, salt becomes a convenient antidote. The cardboard or dog- hair taste is still there, but it is overpowered by the salt.

It all started with dog food…

Dog food used to come in boxes and bags and was uniformly dry as a bone.

The problem was bacteria, which thrived in moisture. To keep the chow safe, it had to be dry.

But General Foods figured out that adding sugar to dog food would keep the bacteria away even in moist conditions, as sugar acted like a binder to make the water inaccessible to the bacteria.

The result was a dog patty that could sit on the shelf until it was sold.

The idea of using sugar to ward off bacteria is now embedded in the production of many processed foods, especially when the fat content is reduced.

The author

Michael Moss is known for the expression ‘pink slime’, which he used in his Pulitzer prize-winning series of articles for the New York Times in 2009, investigating the safety of beef.

He researched his book about salt, fat and sugar for three and a half years and it’s been on the New York Times and Amazon bestseller lists since its launch.

‘Kellogg’s food scientists prepared for me special versions of some of its most iconic brands – without using any salt at all. Their aim was to show me the difficulties they faced in trying to quit their dependence on salt, and in this, they succeeded grandly. It was, to be blunt, a culinary horror show. The Corn Flakes tasted like metal filings.’

» Get your copy of iMag in City Press on Sundays.

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