Just so we are clear from the start, hyperpalatability is NOT a good thing. We have all had hyperpalatable foods: they are the super yummy delicious foods that make you want to eat them over and over again until either you run out or you can’t eat another bite without throwing up. Seriously. These are foods that were created in laboratories, not nature. It’s not enough that we grind the corn into a paste, toast it in little triangles and sprinkle them with some salt; now we coat them in all kinds of chemical flavors designed to light up the pleasure centers of our brains so we eat them over and over again. This is called the Dorito Effect (from the book of the same name by Mark Schatzker.)
The food industry has spent billions developing chemical flavors and food textures designed to keep you eating and getting the maximum enjoyment from your food. They run tests on human lab rats to determine what flavors and textures excite the brain more than others and then figure out how to get those into our food. It would be great to think that they just wanted us to enjoy what we are eating but we all know the truth: the more we eat, the more we buy and the richer they get while we just get fatter and unhealthier. This is why we have loaded baked potato flavored potato chips, salted caramel everything and ice cream with pretzels and peanut butter in it. Food manufacturers have realized what many of us have known for years: different flavors taste good together and switching from one to another makes us eat more. How many of you remember the old joke about pregnant women craving pickles and ice cream? It’s because sweet and salty taste good together. When I was in college, my favorite trail mix was sunflower seeds, M&Ms and raisins and almonds: it was the Sweet & Salty Mix. The idea of taste diversity (ie, sweet + salty) is now being mixed with more hyperpalatable foods and the result is a disaster for us consumers. We are getting fatter and more unhealthy by leaps and bounds, and more of us are losing control of our eating. Experts go back and forth about whether “food addiction” is a real thing, but frankly if you get urges to eat mindlessly until you are bloated and nauseated and still feel the urge to eat, I think that qualifies as an addiction for me!
The combination of these two new food trends, taste diversity and hyperpalatability, is now all over the media and worse, in our supermarkets.
Taste diversity: This is the idea of pairing two foods together to complement each other. We do this when we put salty nuts on our ice cream sundaes, pair fried chicken and waffles, or pair a sharp cheddar with apple pie. These pairings, among others, have long been traditions in our culture, but now food manufacturers are finding ways to market similar combinations (like the sweet & salty trail mix I frequently bought during college).
Hyperpalatablity: This is how food manufacturers to hook our taste buds. They develop flavors and food textures (it’s called ‘mouth-feel’) to trigger the pleasure centers in our brains. This is the same thing that happens when we engage in almost any kind of addictive behavior. This is literally what causes addiction, whether to drugs, alcohol, video games, sex, shopping, cigarettes or salted caramel peanut butter fudge brownies. When that pleasure center lights up, we feel the urge to keep lighting it up again and again and again. Food manufacturers are designing the foods chemically. It’s not just a matter of adding more butter to make the cookies taste richer; they are adding in chemicals that most of us would not recognize as food. Most of recognize things like cheese, corn, wheat or butter as a food, and even things like oil, salt, spices and roots like ginger or turmeric as food, but disodium inosinate? Disodium guanylate? Acesulfame potassium? That sounds more like a chemistry test, but these are now common ingredients in our foods and they are designed to either enhance flavor or add sweetness. These aren’t just the chemical names for food, like calling lemon juice “citric acid.” These are actual chemicals which were developed by scientists. (Incidentally, saccharine was originally a by-product from coal mining and its sweetness was discovered by accident by a scientist who didn’t wash his hands when he went home to dinner. Yay…..?)
In the past, most of us would buy a bag of pretzels, a jar of peanut butter and a pint (or gallon) of chocolate ice cream and we would mix the three things together at home to make a chocolate peanut butter pretzel ice cream sundae. There was a little work involved and for most of us, it was an indulgence. What food manufacturers are doing now is packaging that ice cream for us, so now we just need to go to the freezer section and buy it already mixed for us. We just scoop it into our bowls, or eat it out of the carton- let’s be honest here! We buy chips with the flavors already on them, so we don’t even need to make a seven-layer dip anymore. For most consumers, it’s a great thing: we get all the tasty indulgent treats we like with little work and little extra cost (no more having to buy an entire bag of pretzels, jars of salsa or peanut butter or marshmallows- whatever we are going to put on our chips or ice cream.) I confess, it was easier for me to buy the bags of Sweet & Salty trail mix rather than mixing it up myself (and trail mix sure isn’t brain surgery, but it’s a bit expensive making it yourself!) Yay for convenience!….. Until, it’s not only too convenient, but it’s addictive as well.
This is something that I believe food manufacturers were counting on. I have no evidence to support this allegation; it’s just my opinion, but I think it’s a reasonable conclusion. When you are given a choice between plain ice cream and a more taste diverse/ hyperpalatable ice cream, which one do you choose? Remember the last time you bought ice cream? What flavor did you buy? This was the actual choice you had: in that store’s freezer, you had a choice between plain vanilla, chocolate, strawberry (at least) and the more complex flavors like raspberry cheesecake, rocky road, and many other flavors with other tastes mixed in, such as marshmallow topping, nuts, chocolate chunks, pretzel pieces, toffee bits, cookie dough and cookie pieces. Which one ended up in your freezer? Even if you were buying it for someone else in your family, they chose it over plain vanilla, chocolate or strawberry. I will confess, when I used to buy ice cream, my favorites were Ben & Jerry’s New York Superfudge Chunk or their Brownie Batter. Now when I buy ice cream, I buy another brand because it comes in single serve cups and I usually buy plain vanilla or strawberry since I share it with my dog (his favorite is strawberry.)
One of the major problems with hyperpalatability is that is overstimulation. It’s similar to what happens with violence in tv and movies: the more graphic violence and gore you see in the movies, the less it shocks you, so if the next film maker wants to shock their audience, they have to add in more violence and gore to get the same shocked reactions the previous film gave the audience. Example: when I was a kid, absolutely no one used profanity on tv. I distinctly remember the first time I heard it because it was such a shock (Alan Alda said ‘son of a b*tch’ on a M*A*S*H episode). Now, I can’t tell you how many times I have heard worse on regular tv, not ‘late night’ or something I streamed or downloaded. It has lost its shock value.
This happens with our food: when we are used to eating sugar sweetened anything all day long, when we eat a banana or orange or apricot, it doesn’t taste sweet to us. The natural sugar in the fruit cannot compare with the artificially sweetened whatever we had before. All processed foods have ‘natural flavors’ that have been added to enhance the taste, in addition to some of those other additives mentioned above (disodium inosinate is a flavor enhancer found in nacho flavored Doritos). [Incidentally, just because it says ‘natural flavors’ on the label doesn’t mean it came from food: some ‘natural flavors’ come from wood products or other ‘natural’ sources. To qualify as ‘natural’ it can’t be something man-made, even though it is ‘man-derived’ from whatever natural source it started in.] So the more processed, ‘super flavor boosted’ foods we eat, the more bland, boring and tasteless whole unprocessed foods taste to us. Most of us notice it most with things like sugar and salt, but it affects our entire palate. We get used to complex flavor combinations boosted by sugar, salt and chemical enhancers and then to get more flavor, more pleasure, more excitement out of the foods, we have to keep pursuing more and more, like an addict chasing the high they crave.
This behavior not only keeps us eating hyperpalatable foods but keeps us away from eating whole foods. After eating pepperjack burgers on onion rolls with cheesy garlic fries, roasted chicken and sweet potatoes seem really really bland, and they don’t have the same ‘flavor pop’ in your mouth as the processed food. The pleasure center in your brain doesn’t light up like a Christmas tree, so there isn’t a big draw to have the chicken and sweet potatoes again. But, wow, that pepperjack burger was yummy! So were those garlicky cheesy fries!! This is why so many people give up on eating whole healthier foods after a few days or so: “it tastes awful”; “it’s boring;” “I don’t like it.” (Try getting kids to eat broccoli after garlicky cheesy fries! Ugh!)
Fortunately for us, our palates change over time. We got used to eating hyperpalatable processed foods, and we can get used to eating whole unprocessed foods again too. It takes some time to reset your taste buds, but you can do it, and once you do, I think you’ll be a little surprised. (I know I was!) As some of you may know, I was on first name basis with the Jack in the Box drive thru guy and after several months of not visiting, I happened to drive thru and I ordered the burger I used to get regularly: what a change! I was expecting the yummy crunchy delicious burger I remembered, and it was just barely edible. It tasted nothing like I remembered and I haven’t been back since (going on two years now). For the months in between, I had been eating whole foods and I had gotten used to them. The whole foods taste good to me now and the processed foods just taste really weird and a little gross, some of them.
I don’t miss eating the super flavor boosted processed foods: now they all taste really sweet, salty, chemical-ly and just ‘off.’ They don’t taste right anymore and knowing that they are full of chemicals, preservatives, additives and ‘food-like’ substances doesn’t make them more attractive, or delicious. On the other hand, eating fresh plain strawberries is a real treat, especially since they aren’t available all year round. They also taste a lot better than anything ‘strawberry-flavored.’ It takes a little getting used to, but the real food flavors are worth the effort, and they are better for you too.