With ‘bliss points’ and ‘mouth feel,’ food industry plays role in hedonic eating habits
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The growing obesity epidemic in the U.S. is helped along, in part, by a savvy food industry that uses a combination of science and expert marketing to influence vulnerable consumers, according to a speaker here.
Human biological evolutionary systems are designed to be vulnerable to many of the popular convenience foods marketed today, which are typically manufactured with added sugars and salt to keep a person craving more, Michael Moss, a journalist for The New York Times and author of the book Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, said during a presentation at ObesityWeek 2018.
“This is an industry driving to get us to not just like their products, but to want more and more,” Moss said.
The food industry, Moss said, is not an “evil empire” that set out to make people sick. Rather, food companies are businesses that want to sell as much product as possible. Consumers play a role and must educate themselves and be actively aware of the ingredients that go into the food they eat, whereas health care professionals must do their part to promote healthy eating habits and make patients aware of the connections between food and obesity.
In researching his book, Moss said he was intrigued by the language people in the food industry use when talking to one another. Words like “cravability,” “snackability” and “moreishness” are some of the terms used to describe foods designed to make a person consume as much as possible. “Bliss point,” a term coined by American market researcher and psychophysicist Howard Moskowitz, is considered the amount of an ingredient, such as salt, sugar or fat, which optimizes tastiness, Moss said. “Mouth feel” is a term used to describe the perfect “crunch” of a chip, for example, that will keep a person eating.
“As I talked to nutritionists, I realized that the problem was not that the industry engineered ‘bliss points’ for soda,” Moss said. “It’s that they marched around the grocery store adding sugar to products that didn’t used to be sweet. Bread now has sugar in it. Some yogurts have as much sugar as a serving of ice cream. What this does is create an expectancy in us that everything should be sweet, so when you drag your kids to the produce aisle ... that’s why you have a rebellion on your hands.”
Creating brand loyalty
Moss said he had the opportunity to visit several corporate headquarters, including Nestle and Kellogg, to see and learn about what ingredients such as added salt contribute to a product’s taste and appearance.
Removing salt and sugar, Moss said, is not an easy fix. Frozen waffles, for example, come out of a toaster “looking like straw” without salt. The popular breakfast cereal Corn Flakes not only loses flavor once salt is removed, but has an odd metallic taste that is usually masked by the salt.
“The industry is more hooked on these things than we are,” Moss said. “One can make a fairly strong argument that the industry isn’t just responding to our inherent like for sugar or salt, but leading us to have a liking for salt that we’re not even born with.”
Food companies have also mastered brand loyalty, Moss said, combining foods that are carefully taste-tweaked in labs with strong advertising and brightly colored packaging.
Moss said in meeting with various food companies, executives have expressed a desire to create healthier options. But there are inherent difficulties.
“There were two problems that came up with making their products healthier,” Moss said. “One is they can dial back, but if you talk to them about stuffing those Hot Pockets with Brussels sprouts or broccoli ... processed food lives on being low cost, inconvenient and irresistible.”
Is food addictive?
Moss said it is difficult to tell which specific ingredients, if any, might be associated with addictive eating habits.
“Is food addictive? I’ve met people with incredible eating problems. Which of our ingredients is responsible?” Moss said. “If it’s sugar, why don’t we see the soaring amounts of dopamine that we do for people who are addicted to drugs?”
Moss said if food is labeled as something addictive, it raises a question: Where do you go from there?
“What lessons, therapies, solutions are out there that people have tried to apply to other addictive substances?” Moss said. “Have those worked? If so, for how many people? If they haven’t worked, we have to think really carefully about whether we want to put food into that framework.”
Lately, Moss said, the food industry has been busy buying smaller mom-and-pop food companies with healthier reputations to reinvent processed foods to make them inexpensive and tasty, but also good for you.
“In some cases, they may get there with some products,” Moss said during a Q&A session after his presentation. “More immediately, is the Lean Pocket really that much better than the Hot Pocket? The answer is probably going to be on that spectrum — for some people, maybe, and for other people, no difference at all.
“That fine line between the Lean Pocket and the Hot Pocket can be a real problem for people prone to messing up,” Moss said. – by Regina Schaffer
Moss M. Food addiction or hedonic eating? Setting the record straight. Presented at: ObesityWeek 2018; Nov. 11-15, 2018; Nashville, Tenn.
Disclosure: Moss is a journalist with The New York Times.