Sneaky cheese, how salt is shaped, and what exactly "bliss point" means. Michael Moss, author of Salt Sugar Fat, tells us 10 things you need to know about how the food giants are hooking us.
10. The inventors of processed food refer to their work as “engineering,” because it involves an incredible amount of laboratory time and high math. When Howard Moskowitz, a legend in the industry, recently engineered a new soda flavor for Dr Pepper, he tested out 61 formulations of the sweet flavoring, each only slightly different from the next, and put these through 3,904 consumer tastings, then applied regression analysis to find the perfect formula guaranteed to be make the soda a hit.
9. Every one of our 10,000 taste buds is wired for sweet taste, but even we can get too much sugar in our food. So what Moskowitz and other food scientists seek out is called the “bliss point,” which is the perfect amount of sweetness, not too little, not too much. With sugar being added to more and more items in the grocery store, there are now calculated bliss points for pasta sauce, bread, frozen pizza, and on and on.
8. In many ways, fat is even more powerful than sugar as an additive to processed foods. It has twice the calories as sugar, but it will sneak up on the brain when you don’t realize you are eating a fatty food. Even more problematic for consumers, the kind of fat that is bad for you, known as saturated fat, is typically solid and really fools the brain. Scientists refer to it as the “invisible fat” because it slips into your diet and body unseen. But boy does it add to the allure. The attraction of fat is known to food companies as “mouthfeel,” like the warm gooey sensation of melted cheese.
7. Salt is valued for what companies call its “flavor burst,” hitting the tongue straight away with a salty taste that races to the pleasure zone of the brain, which in turn compels you to eat more. And salt manufacturers have learned to manipulate the physical shape of salt to most perfectly suit the needs of processed foods, from powdery salts for soups to chunks shaped like pyramids with flat sides that stick to the outside of food and interact quickest with your saliva.
6. Beyond salt, sugar and fat, the snack food companies have perfected other aspects of their snacks to maximize their allure and irresistibility. Take chips. Research shows that noisier chips taste better, so every effort is made to increase the crunch. The industry also refers warmly to the phenomenon known as “vanishing caloric density,” epitomized by Cheetos. When they melt in your mouth, they fool the brain into thinking the calories have disappeared, as if you were eating celery. No calories, no reason for the brain to tell you to stop eating already.
5. There is a growing consensus among nutritionists that as far as calories and weight gain go, sugar is sugar is sugar, no matter if it is derived from beets or cane (table sugar), from corn (high fructose corn syrup) or from the latest craze in processed food sweeteners: fruit concentrate. This term applies to fruits -- mostly grapes and pears because they are least expensive -- that are condensed and processed, in some cases stripped of everything but the sugar molecules. Beware of foods that tout “made with real fruit” on the front. Not to be confused with fresh fruits, which have the fiber and bulk that is so highly valued by nutritionists.
4. Beware of other touts on the front of packages, like “low fat” or “all natural.” They can easily fool you into overlooking the other reality. As the small print in the nutrition facts box often shows, a low-fat yogurt can have as much sugar as ice cream, while all natural products can be fully loaded in sugar, fat and salt.
3. The largest single source of saturated fat in our diet now is cheese, and this is by no accident. When we started drinking low-fat and skim milk in the 1960s to reduce our intake of saturated fat, the dairy industry with help from Washington started slipping that fat back into our diets in the form of cheese. Cheese was turned into an additive -- stuffed into pizza crusts, added to peanut butter crackers and reformed as cubed, stringed, diced, grated and tubbed for easier cooking at home. In all, this helped triple our average consumption of cheese to as much as 33 pounds a year.
2. The food giants are more hooked on sugar, on fat and especially on salt than we are. We’re not even born liking salt. We develop a taste for it at 6 months, and recent studies suggest that diets high in processed foods will have kids licking the salt shaker by preschool. But you can get off salt merely by avoiding processed foods for six weeks or so, and then everything in the store will taste way too salty. Not so, the food giants. They need lots of salt to preserve their products so they can sit on the shelf for weeks at a time. They need salt to avoid using more costly ingredients like fresh herbs and spices. And they need salt to cover up bad flavors inherent to food processing, such as the one known as warmed-over flavor caused by the oxidation of fat in meat.
1. This bodes ill for the latest vows of food companies to cut back on their loads of salt, sugar and fat. But there are some things you can do as a consumer to fight back. First, read this book. It will hopefully leave you feeling more empowered, simply by knowing all that the food companies do to lure you in and keep you coming back for more. Also, spend more time on the fringes of the grocery store, where the fresh fruits and vegetables are kept. And when you hit the center aisles, beware of the items at eye level. Industry research (they put devices on shopper’s heads to monitor their eye movements) shows that we look mostly toward the middle sections, at eye level, so that’s where the biggest selling items – those most loaded with salt, sugar and fat – are placed. Reach low and reach high for better health.