How Junk Food Is Engineered To Be Hopelessly Addicting

You know that feeling where you snack and snack and never quite get satisfied? That’s what the industry calls "the bliss point."

Nobody goes into their kitchen looking for a snack and ends up eating a whole chocolate cake. Putting away a whole bag of chips, on the other hand, is a distinct possibility. That’s because cake, generally, is rich enough that our bodies tell us to pump the brakes after a slice or two. Chips don’t trigger any such alarm. In fact, they’ve been carefully designed not to.

That’s one of the many fascinating, unsettling things we learn in a piece from this weekend’s New York Times Magazine, an excerpt from a forthcoming book called Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. The author, Michael Moss, spent four years researching the processed-food industry, and in the excerpt he explains how unhealthy snacks of all types have one thing in common: They’re all built around "the bliss point," a certain flavor profile that gets us snacking but never quite leaves us satisfied.

At one point, Moss visits with Howard Moskowitz, a pioneer of bliss point research and a self-proclaimed "game changer" in the processed-food industry, who shows us just how much work is involved in pinpointing that elusive, and highly profitable quality. In this case, Moskowitz is working on a new spin-off for Dr. Pepper:

Finding the bliss point required the preparation of 61 subtly distinct formulas—31 for the regular version and 30 for diet. The formulas were then subjected to 3,904 tastings organized in Los Angeles, Dallas, Chicago and Philadelphia. The Dr Pepper tasters began working through their samples, resting five minutes between each sip to restore their taste buds. After each sample, they gave numerically ranked answers to a set of questions: How much did they like it overall? How strong is the taste? How do they feel about the taste? How would they describe the quality of this product? How likely would they be to purchase this product?

Moskowitz’s data—compiled in a 135-page report for the soda maker—is tremendously fine-grained, showing how different people and groups of people feel about a strong vanilla taste versus weak, various aspects of aroma and the powerful sensory force that food scientists call "mouth feel." This is the way a product interacts with the mouth, as defined more specifically by a host of related sensations, from dryness to gumminess to moisture release. These are terms more familiar to sommeliers, but the mouth feel of soda and many other food items, especially those high in fat, is second only to the bliss point in its ability to predict how much craving a product will induce.

On page 83 of that report, we read, there’s a chart with a blue parabola. At its apex: the bliss point for Cherry Vanilla Dr Pepper, a beverage which went on to be wildly successful.

It doesn’t come as much of a shock to learn that, as consumers, our willpower is actively being dismantled by the best food scientists and flavor engineers money can buy. But the story makes you wonder how the same sophisticated science could be used to solve the obesity epidemic. Could we engineer a bag of chips so flavorful that we’d feel totally snacked-out after just a handful? Almost certainly. But for Frito-Lay, say, there’s no incentive to make that product. You don’t make money off of people eating less.

Read the full piece over on the Times' site.

[Illustration: Igor Yanovskiy on Shutterstock]

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