Do You Know Your Stomach’s “Bliss Point”?

I’ve been accused, more than once, of being a foodie. I don’t mind; there’s nothing wrong with being interested in food and cooking, or with taking more than a passing interest in what one eats and where one’s food comes from. To me, it’s all part of caring about my health and being mindful of the impact I have on the environment.

But knowing what’s in what you eat is an ongoing challenge that carries with it a certain amount of risk. What’s a consumer to do when organic spinach, an indisputably healthy food with no known heath risks, is recalled for possible E. coli contamination? Or when packages marked as beef actually contain horse meat? How about sprouts, the staple of the 1970s health food scene? Not so fast. Sadly, these recalls are so common that an attempt to provide you with a complete list would quickly grow tiresome for us all, but if you’re interested, head on over to the FDA’s website, where there’s a long list that’s frequently updated.

While we all know that crackers, chips, cookies, and other snack foods aren’t always the healthiest options, we do know what’s in them, even if the ingredients aren’t familiar. Federal law requires that we not only get to know exactly what’s in them (even if we don’t get to know whether these ingredients have been genetically modified), but that we’re also provided with nutritional information, suggested serving size, country of origin, and allergen information.

But that’s not the whole story.

According to a fascinating New York Times article by Michael Moss, there are many ways we’re manipulated by large food corporations into buying and consuming foods that seem identifiable, despite their multi-syllabic and impenetrable ingredient labels. But these lists of ingredients and additives are more than confounding; they also hide more than they reveal about what you’re actually going to eat.

Moss talked with food scientists and marketers who explained how the big players in the food industry are hard at work trying to grab from one another what’s referred to as “stomach share.” They do this by combining fat, sugar, and salt, manipulating the ratios of each based on extensive market research and taste tests, and then settling on the recipe most likely to deliver you to your “bliss point.” This probably requires little explanation—just think of the feeling your get when you pop a Frito into your mouth, or when you get a craving for a potato chip or a Snickers, and then get that first bite. Yeah, that’s it. You know the feeling, don’t you? What you might not know is that millions of dollars have been spent to give you that sensation. And it’s not just about your enjoyment. It’s about achieving “sensory-specific satiety,” which essentially means that your taste buds are stimulated just enough to keep you interested, but not so much that your brain gets the “that’s lovely, but that’s enough” signal that normally controls appetite.

As Tara Parker-Pope, in her New York Times story about Dr. David A. Kessler, author of The End of Overeating, put it:

“Today, foods are more than just a combination of ingredients. They are highly complex creations, loaded up with layer upon layer of stimulating tastes that result in a multisensory experience for the brain. Food companies ‘design food for irresistibility,’ Dr. Kessler noted. ‘It’s been part of their business plans.’ “

And what a terrific business plan it is! Though getting you to buy as much of their products as possible is great for these corporations’ bottom lines, such practices contribute to the current crises in obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease we’re seeing in the developed, and now, increasingly, the developing world.

Another trick of the trade that Moss reveals is called “vanishing caloric density.” This painstakingly engineered attribute is exemplified by the Cheeto, which dissolves in your mouth so quickly that it fools your brain into behaving as if there are no calories in it. You can likely guess that this leads to over-consumption of fat and salt. And, one presumes, plenty of bliss.

So what’s to be done, you might ask? Avoiding the big snack and soda pop manufacturers would be a good start. Understanding that you’re being chemically manipulated, and making conscious choices accordingly seems prudent. Informing yourself is, of course, key. But probably the best idea is to keep asking our legislators to give regulators the tools and legal guidelines they need to keep the companies who feed us honest. Informative labeling, more transparency and more demands for corporate responsibility could all be very effective tools in this fight. As consumers, we can’t match the millions of dollars food manufacturers have at their disposal to defend ourselves from deliberate attempts to funnel unhealthy levels of salt, sugar and fat into our bodies. Shouldn’t we at least have some sensible legislation, and regulators with teeth, to fight on our side?

Moss’s bookSalt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us is now available. Check out his television appearances here, and at TheDailyShow.com

This guest post appeared at The Broad Side on April 3, 2013