Yumminess — Challenging Hedonistic Foodland

February 1, 2010 in Foodland Chronicles, Psychology of Food, Shelf Life, Weight Management by Victor Bunderson

Guest Blog by Dr. Grandpa

The term “yummy” is a grandmotherly, friendly and warm kind of term, but the food industry wants more.  Terms like “hyperpalatable”, “irresistible”, and “Hedonic” are used in the food industry to describe the search for know-how and methods of preparing and serving food so that we cannot resist it, so that we will devour it eagerly and quickly, and so that we will crave it and buy it repeatedly.

In psychology ‘hedonics’ is “the ethical study of pleasure”.  When hedonics is studied as the science of creating and manipulating sensations associated with eating foods the “ethical” part is seldom if ever remembered.  The development of foods that grab you and won’t let go of you is about increasing sales and attaining high profits.  Profit is maximized not only by selling more and more, but by reducing the cost of the ingredients.  As a result, those of older than a couple of decades have observed the development of many new  hyperpalatable food products that are made up in large part of cheaper (more fattening) ingredients with a longer shelf life so that more can be sold before it spoils. For example, white flours have had the bran taken out (fiber – more work to eat) and the germ (with fatty acids that can turn rancid).  This processing produces long shelf life, and the extracted bran and germ can profitably be sold separately -- frequently for animal food.  Such nutrient-impoverished foods may be profitable, but they are less satisfying. This is good for sales because you need to eat more.

Making these food-like products readily available, where we can grab them and eat them at anytime, not just at meals, has been a great accomplishment of the food industry.  Thus, we can find these processed food-like substances anywhere: in fast-food restaurants, snack shops associated with gasoline outlets, malls, airports, and other places along well-travelled pathways. We find them in the shelf rows of supermarkets and can fill up our home with them so that they will be easily at hand while reading, watching TV, playing games – anytime!  Three meals a day? No longer.  Continuous eating is now within our reach.

Dr. David Kessler has written a new book, The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite documenting in detail the addictive properties of processed food products engineered for hedonics, and made widely available through marketing and distribution.  He is the dynamic former FDA commissioner who tackled the tobacco industry with notable success.  Now he is not alone in identifying obesity as the leading public health problem – it has passed up cigarettes.   Kessler gets to the bottom of the surge in overeating of processed food products that has led to the obesity epidemic. His book is a step in the great battle to free us from this new addiction, and from its debilitating consequences.

The goal in hedonic design of food-like products is to overcome our natural restraints to overeating so that we will want more and more, so that we will develop a craving and repeatedly buy it and eat it.  This can be accomplished by tapping into the pleasure center of the brain and building associations and habit patterns to induce people to go back again and again to the bag of chips, that serving dish, etc., whether they are still hungry or not.  The brain actually changes as the habit of eating more and more hedonic food is strengthened by repetition and by conditioning us to cues associated with the product.  More neurons are built into the circuits for especially seductive tastes, and they fire more often, encouraging us to action to get that taste again. These taste-stimulated neurons are part of the opioid circuitry of the body’s primary pleasure system. Endorphins are opioids given off as this pleasure system operates.  These brain-produced “pleasure drugs” sooth us and reward us.  It has been found that the brain changes physically to seek for and eat foods that have become irresistible to us. These physical changes in the brain are very similar to the changes found in drug addiction.  The addictive power of these food-like substances is typically not as strong as in illegal drugs, but it is not far below it in strength, according to Kessler.

The five factors of hedonics when applied to foods, are first anticipation, second visual appeal, third aroma, then taste and flavor, finally texture and mouthfeel.  When we are “hooked” we anticipate getting the craved food into our mouth, we move in the direction of places where we might find it, we respond to visual, auditory, or other cues that have become associated with eating the product in the past.  It has been engineered to look attractive, which adds to the anticipation.  It has been designed to have an appealing, enticing aroma.  The taste is going to be built around the three main attractors of processed foods: fat, sugar, and salt, and have flavor highlights from a wide variety of chemical flavors and actual add-ins that add variety and delightful flavor notes.  These are the “four horsemen” of processed foods designed to be hyperpalatable – layers within layers of fat, sugar, and salt, with flavor highlights.  The product has been designed to slip down easily – not too much work.  This makes it easier to overlook how many calories you are devouring, and in a restaurant, you finish faster and can vacate your seat for another customer. (The food industry did not in general understand this science and maliciously exploit it, they just test and change their products until they are highly palatable, craved, eaten more and more, and purchased repeatedly).

Dr. Grandma’s offers a thin but strong bamboo pole to grasp for those being swept along in the torrent of such attractive and available hedonically designed products.  Our message is that the science of palatability can be applied to good foods, whole foods, not just to highly processed foods featuring the four horsemen of fat, sugar, salt, with chemical flavors and textures.

Take the dinner plate below, with the asparagus from Dr. Grandma’s Flavorful Roasted Asparagus recipe.  The smells waft up from the warm whole foods and draw you in…. The colors and textures attract the eye.  It is fun to eat the asparagus, usually starting from the tip.  Once in the mouth, there is a burst of flavor highlights from the sesame seeds, the ginger, and the shallots. The fresh asparagus chews easily and slips down smoothly, leaving a good aftertaste. During the chewing, the flavor highlights from the ginger, seeds, and shallots flash the taste equivalents of firework bursts for each mouthful.  The Yams also have great visual and gustatory taste highlights, and plenty of one of the most potent four horsemen:  sugar.  Unlike refined sugars, including the dirt-cheap high fructose corn syrup, we are using natural sweets here instead of the nutritionally empty calories of refined sugar. This yam dish (Yams on a Hawaiian Date) is loaded with antioxidents and bioflavenoids, with natural sugars encased in the different textures and sweetnesses of pineapple, sweet potato, and dates. The flavor and texture highlights in these two dishes let us click off another one of the four horsemen of palatability.

We have not left out that main attractor of the four horsemen either.  Fat is there – but really good-for-you (in moderation!) monounsaturated fat.  Dr Grandma’s Extra-Virgin Olive Oil was used to cook the fish, and to roast the asparagus.  A little salt is there; Dr. Grandmas uses other flavors and spices whenever possible to minimize the need for added salt. The flavor highlights are richly supplied by the way the foods were prepared.  Hyperpalatable processed foods have wildly attractive flavors and textures, but are usually made up mostly of processed foods, featuring cheap ingredients where possible.  The goal in creative dishes like the ones pictured are to provide delightful textures and flavors using real foods, not relying on chemical flavors. The fish in this case is Tilapia.  It is a low-fat, economical fish, usually farmed.  It is good for you, and tastes so good with the spices shown that I only sometimes use Dr.Grandmas home mixed tarter sauce (mayonnaise with some pickle relish instead of store-bought bottles).  But farm-grown Tilapia does not have as much omega 3 fatty acids as does ocean salmon or other ocean fishes, so we eat those fishes at other times.  As in the original Mediterranean diet, we recommend much more fish than red meat, and do not require meat of any kind at every dinner.

As Kessler points out (pg 94) “American food is fundamentally less satisfying than Japanese food”… “you have to have a lot to be satisfied”…”Europeans say much the same thing”…”Where traditional cuisine is meant to satisfy, American Industrial food is meant to stimulate”.

This brings us back to where we started:  “Yummyness” is a term we use to suggest the goal of designing cuisine using real, whole, non-processed foods arranged to have as much of delightful palatability as possible (but not hyperpalatability).  This removes the need to overeat, it does not overload the pleasure center of the brain through addictive hedonics without ethics, and definitely, these foods leave one with a comfortable feeling of fullness and satisfaction.  Moreover, it gives us one additional source of satisfaction – a supreme source of satisfaction – not found in the list of five hedonic food factors:  the mental satisfaction of having chosen well, both for substantial enjoyment – but not addictive –and for long-lasting good health.

Good choosing and good eating to you all!

Dr. Grandpa