I have never been a big eater. In fact, it took a great deal of effort for me to get to a healthy weight when I was a child. But, like anyone, I do have my favorite foods and flavors. Because I am not all that fond of food, I always thought of the food industry as a business that was built around a basic need. We need to eat, so they provide food.
I innocently thought that new food offerings came from industry chefs who simply wanted to provide the consumer with a new flavor option. People like peanut butter. People like chocolate. How can we combine them so that the oil from the peanut butter does not melt the chocolate? Bang, the Reese’s cup is born.
A few nights ago, while watching “The Colbert Report,” Stephen Colbert did a fun little bit on something called “The Bliss Point.” Given the name, you would think the “bliss point” is some ideal. A point at which a food is a perfect balance, and it is that in a way, but not in the way you would think. It isn’t a balance for a perfect, satisfying taste. The “bliss point” is an ideal balance of sweet, salt, fat and texture that create an almost uncontrollable craving. It is a point of a perfect balance of taste, but at the same time it denies satisfaction. After all, if you are satisfied, you stop eating.
After seeing Stephen Colbert’s bit, I did a little research. I didn’t have to do a lot, as it became obvious very quickly. I stumbled on this article in the “NY Times.” Honestly, I haven’t read the entire article. I didn’t need to in order to get the gist of the idea. The food industry does not rely on chefs alone. They use scientists and market analysts to craft foods, not so much to give the consumer what they want, as much as to find a way to keep the consumer consuming.
Think of your favorite big meal. Maybe it is something like steak, baked potato and corn on the cob. When you enjoy such a meal, it tastes wonderful. Do you want it the next night? Probably not. Would you eat that same meal for four nights in a row? Definitely not. While you enjoy the flavors, your body gets signals that it has received those flavors and their associated nutrients. Your internal meter switches over to “full” on those nutrients and gently encourages you to eat something else.
Let’s look at some old world bliss point trickery, a good old carnival standard, cotton candy. A ball of cotton candy is about two tablespoons of raw sugar. You know if you put two tablespoons of raw sugar in your mouth, while you might enjoy the sweetness, very quickly you would feel like you had enough. The raw sugar takes a little time to dissolve in your mouth and little time to digest. That time allows your body to process not only the sugar, but to recognize that it did. But cotton candy is a bit different. You pop a bit in your mouth and it dissolves almost instantly. Your brain recognizes the wonderfully sweet taste, but almost immediately it is gone. You want more. You can easily eat that entire ball of cotton candy, and perhaps consider another, where you would not want to eat two spoonfuls of raw sugar.
Cheetos (a registered trademark of Frito-Lay) are surprisingly the same. Pop a Cheeto in your mouth and you get those wonderful, desired flavors of salt, fat, and yes, even some sweet, but almost immediately the Cheeto dissolves. Your brain gets the flavor, but doesn’t get the time to recognize that it processed something. Your body gets the calories, but it isn’t allowed to recognize that it got them. So what do you do? You eat another, and another, and another. Like a Pringle’s, once you pop, you can’t stop. You want the flavor, but never receive enough of the flavor to become satisfied.
This is not an accidental thing. It isn’t that Frito-Lay developed the Cheeto for its flavor and texture and it just happened to hit a bliss point. Quite the contrary. Frito-Lay developed the Cheeto, and continues to refine its products to produce a bliss point. The food industry, especially those that produce many comfort foods, snack foods, or inexpensive quick foods like breakfast cereals, soft drinks, breads, and the like, work hard to make their foods tasty while at the same time deceptively unsatisfying to the body for the sole purpose of making you eat more. In short, they are trying to get you addicted without using a narcotic.
At a time when the country is experiencing an obesity problem, this seems insidious. Of course, this practice is what has led to our obesity and diabetes problems. Unfortunately, there is nothing they are doing that can be called illegal, immoral perhaps, but not illegal. Because of the never-ending pressure to make more money, to get more customers, these trends are even beginning to creep into naturally satisfying foods. Milk producers, soup companies and others are looking at sugar additives and balancing sweet to fat in order to produce unsatisfying bliss points.
I do not have a solution for this onslaught. Fortunately I have always had a dislike for food, so this trend does not seriously affect me. But I know it is a serious problem for a great many people. It is easy to say, think about what you eat, watch your intake, watch your diet. But with scientists being employed by almost every food producing company, it may not be as simple as that. Without your knowledge, your bliss point may be regularly triggered, leaving you helplessly unsatisfied.