White coat researchers for a leading brand of sugary soft drink huddle in a laboratory for a high-powered meeting. Before the researchers, there are comprehensive files on the public reaction to more than 50 variations of a new soda flavor; each just a little different than the next. Each has been the subject of 3,000 taste tests given to potential consumers from around the country. The scientists have completed their high math analysis of the findings on each. They feed the data into a computer. In return, they receive a bell-shaped curve, which shows which variation represents the perfect amount of sweetness (neither too little, nor too much). They are confident they have now found the critical "bliss point" for their new product — the perfect amount of sweetness that will drive cravings off the chart — and in response, this new product would fly off the shelf. Welcome to the modern world of food production.
In this highly engineered world of food product development, where response to sweetness is ramped up to the maximum, the bliss point theorem is not just applied to products you expect to be sweet. Check any product on your grocery store shelf today, from bread to yogurt to pasta sauce. You will find lots of non-sweet products with a one serving amount of added sugar equal to maybe a couple of Oreo cookies. I bought a half-gallon of certified organic whole milk the other day from a reputable brand and it still contained 11 grams of added sugar, which was the lowest I could find. As for the low fat version, you don't even want to go there. Today, you will be hard pressed to find a processed product that does not have added sugar. It's as if everything on American food shelves that can be sweetened has been sweetened.
It's a trend that's been going on for so many years that nutritionists suggest it has created an expectation in people that everything we eat should be sweet. Having trouble getting the kids to embrace things like Brussels sprouts and broccoli and other natural foods that taste sour or slightly bitter? No wonder. They have grown up in a world hard-wired to sweets — the thing most parents try to ration out.
It adds a bit of irony to the slogan "I bet you can't eat just one," don't you think? We can't eat just one because some very bright mad food scientists have managed to engineer products to be so irresistible and so tasty at first bite that will power is no match.
But the manipulation is even more devious than you might imagine; it seems there's this other phenomenon at play. When we eat something that has an overwhelming flavor, yet triggers the feeling of fullness, we are experiencing what is called "sensory-specific satiety." We like foods that have an identifiable strong flavor, yet we tire of them quickly. Get too much of one thing, and the brain starts sending out signals of satiety, or fullness, to compel us to move on to different foods. In the quest to create laboratory products that will sell consistently, the food industry has also learned to walk a fine line between the extremes of an exciting first bite or sip and the necessity to follow it with something less satisfying, yet comfortingly familiar. It is this final ingredient in the equation leading us to what David A. Kessler, a former Food and Drug Administration director, calls "conditioned hyper eating."
This pursuit of the holy grail of "bliss," has propelled the food industry down a near century long path of distorting the American diet in favor of sugar-rich, calorie-dense products — products that are not particularly healthy for us to eat, but far too often too hard to resist. This pattern of concentrating fat, salt and sugar in products formulated to maximize "bliss" has led to a world where the average American now eats around 33 pounds of cheese and cheese products per year — triple the consumption rate of the 1970s. A world where you can easily find on the shelf a child-targeted "snack pack" containing 830 milligrams of sodium and 39 grams of sugar; one that TV ads have them clamoring for. Given this situation, can anyone in the food industry really say with good conscience that there is no culpability in a 30-year surge in obesity?
Should we feel sorry for major packaged-food companies when we learn they lost $4 billion in market share alone last year, as shoppers turn to fresh and organic alternatives? According to a 2012 report from the Federal Trade Commission, food companies at the time were spending less than one half of one percent of their marketing dollars to promote fruits and vegetables. They were quite content to put the industry's marketing might behind mainly fast-food restaurant items, sugary beverages and cereal. Ignored were growing interest in farmer's markets, the elevation of the chef to celebrity status, the proliferation of urban food trucks, and the return of the artisan and craft products.
As major packaged-food companies play a game of catch-up, they appear to be disadvantaged by their artificial "bliss point" creation and a dilemma of their own making. The simple fact is that fabricated "healthier" versions of heavily processed food hits just don't taste as good as the high calorie, sugar-loaded products their customers are used to.
We don't need a focus group or survey to tell us that people are beginning to care more and more about what they put in their bodies, about eating healthier. It's just that eating healthier is now reaching a tipping point. It's significantly starting to change purchasing habits, and this change is really hitting the food giants hard.
This occurrence may not lead to a happy ending for major packaged food titans, but there certainly appears to be one ahead for us.
Write to Chuck Norris ([email protected]) with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook's "Official Chuck Norris Page." He blogs at http://chucknorrisnews.blogspot.com. To find out more about Chuck Norris and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.
Photo credit: Brian Fagan