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How Can We Eat Less If Our Food Tastes Too Good To Put Down?


How many times have we all mindlessly snacked on something that had that perfect crunch, flavor, texture, shape, and even color, whereby before we knew it, we were mopping up crumbs with our fingers at the bottom of the bag? Most of us still do it, as a new study shows that over half of the foods that make up the American diet meet some criteria of irresistibility. The term for this type of food is hyper-palatable. Simply put, it’s a food that’s too good to eat just one (or ten). As a food manufacturer and as an eater, the notion of hyper-palatability should be considered to be a good thing. Why wouldn’t we want our food to taste not just palatable, but hyper-palatable?

Mark Schatzker’s book The Dorito Effect takes us on a tour of how we have tricked our brains to crave certain combinations of flavor, triggering pleasure centers and blunting satiety centers, to the point of craving more and more. Fresh foods and foods with limited added seasonings have fallen off the palatability curve altogether, let alone being anywhere near hyper-palatable. While processed foods can provide a crave-worthy combination of tastes, fresh foods have become bigger yet blander.

According to researchers at the University of Kansas, the term hyper-palatable has previously been merely descriptive, referring to foods such as fried foods, fast foods, and sweets. The research group embarked on creating a more standardized, precise, and quantitative definition of hyper-palatable, in order to determine its prevalence in our food supply. Their goal is to eventually have food labels indicating degree of hyper-palatability for the consumer. Yes, this may sound odd. Most would think that a label indicating that a food is too good to put down is a positive perk. But read on to see what defines these hyper-palatable foods that are sweet, savory, crunchy, and colorful.

Salt content, synthetic flavoring, and sugar content seem to be pretty basic additives to make food taste good, but the secret sauce in hyper-palatability is based on combinations of ingredients working in synergy to play tricks on our taste buds. Earlier studies showed that certain combinations of fat and sodium enhanced palatability, leading to overconsumption and obesity. Others have linked the fat and sugar mix to lead to over-eating. But none to date have tackled quantifying how many of our foods contain these combinations, and which combinations are seen most frequently.

The University of Kansas researchers gathered data from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food and Nutrient Database for Dietary Studies (FNDDS), a publicly available database representing the entire US food system. Removing beverages and infant formula from the equation, this included just under 8,000 food items to analyze. Food was designated hyper-palatable based on increasing percent calories from fat, carbohydrates, simple sugars and sodium. These factors were then grouped into foods with high fat/high sodium, high fat/high sugar, or high carbohydrate/high sodium. Over 60% of all the foods studied met criteria for hyper-palatability. The majority (70%) of hyper-palatable foods fell into the high fat/high sodium group, which would include items such as meats, fried food, and most fast food. The investigators found that the method of preparation (for example fried chicken versus baked chicken) had more impact on hyper-palatability than the type of food itself.

Interestingly, of the almost 500 items labeled as reduced or no fat, sugar, salt, or calorie, almost half met criteria for hyper-palatability. With a study that established numeric levels to define hyper-palatable foods, one may be surprised to see that many so-called ‘healthier’ options have high levels of fat, sodium, sugar, and carbohydrates. Even if an item has lower sugar, lower fat, lower sodium, or lower calories, the relative amounts, or overall percent of calories, of these ingredients remain just as high as the full-sugar, full-fat, full-sodium options.

Just as nutritional labels are now leading many consumers to flip the cereal box from the marketing claims on the front to the actual nutritional information on the back, labels of the future may include the food’s hyper-palatability index. This is an interesting concept, both from the vantage point of the food and beverage industry as well as the food consumer. Would you serve your guests food they love and just can’t have enough of, or food that’s just barely palatable? For now, if something you eat tastes too good to have just one (or ten), the folks at the University of Kansas can probably tell you why.


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