Food, for many of us, is almost emotive. It beckons us every time we walk past the fridge, calling us towards it. It often becomes a ghostly ghoul hauntingly calling us through the wind, begging us to eat it. The siren call can be too loud to ignore, depending on our mood.
Can you relate to one of these scenarios? When you wake up in the morning, does the smell of brewing coffee brighten your senses? Or, when you've been at work or chasing the children, do you find yourself daydreaming about that first sip of whisky or wine to "take the edge off?"
Facts are facts, and our favourite food can lift our moods, soothe our souls, help us celebrate, or drown our sorrows. Unfortunately, food companies have figured this out, and instead of ignoring it, they use our emotions against us for profit.
Are you stressed out? It would help if you had a break, says KitKat.If you're feeling glum, Coca-Cola says, "open a coke, open happiness." However, food companies have gone one step further than tapping into our emotions. They are perfectly formulating their foods to sate our every evolutionary taste preference.MacDonalds doesn't even hide it – a billboard for the Angus Third Pounder Deluxe said, "Crafted for your Craving." And that's precisely what they did.
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Food manufacturers have perfected ways to formulate flavour and textures to respond ideally to your food cravings, leaving you wanting more. The combination of flavours, textures, smells and other stimuli involved when buying and eating their foods all point toward consuming more. When offered a chip, have you ever said, "I'll just have one?" And yet you notice that you edge closer to the chip bowl, stealing a few more each time. Or, have you sat down at a movie theatre, looking at your gigantic bag of popcorn, and said,"there is no way I'll finish that." Funnily enough, by the end of the opening credits, your hand scratches at the kernels littering the bottom of the bucket. The same goes for eating ice cream when we feel sad; it's only a few tears away from hitting the bottom of the bucket.
Food marketers have this flavour formula down to a literal science. They employ tactics such as "stimuli stacking," "bliss points," and the “Big 5” characteristics to make food more enticing. Want to know more? Read on
Processed and junk food only became popular in the 20th century. It's such a recent phenomenon that our brains have evolved slower than our technology. Our brains are still looking for food that provides the most calories for survival, which tend to be sweet, salty, and fatty foods, which were hard to come by in the ancient world. If you wanted something sweet, you had to wait until the appropriate season for fruit to flourish or risk anaphylactic shock by sticking your hand in a beehive. If you wanted salt, you either had to be near a saltwater body or go on the hunt for fresh meat. If you wanted something fatty, you had your work cut out and had to join the hunt.
These foods were higher in calories, which was a massive reward for our efforts. Not only that, but these foods are also connected to the reward circuitry in our brains, ensuring that we get a dopamine "hit," or some pleasure, out of eating them. As it turns out, calories alone weren't sufficient motivation to get up and look for food; we needed more incentive to eat. These flavours are programmed in our brains to be satiating and delicious and alter our moods to feel happier. In our modern times, we don't even have to leave our couches – these highly palatable, intense stimuli-stacked foods can land at our doorstep or be stored in our house. We have the reward without effort.
The bliss point is another way food scientists can craft the perfected response to your craving. The man responsible for this term is Howard Moskowitz. He discovered that enjoyment of a particular food would increase as the sweetness profile increased. However, the enjoyment would dissipate if it became too sweet. Moskowitz found that each food had its desired sweetness level at its peak appeal. He took this information to food marketers. As a result, food manufacturers used this insight to fine-tune the bliss point of almost every item on supermarket shelves. You can watch his mini-interview on Youtube, titled, The Bliss Point | Retro Report Voices, where he explains how it's done.
The Big 5
The Big 5 is another tactic food manufacturers can use to create the perfect, moreish food. These five traits of the ideal food are:
1. Calorie dense (fatty, sugary, salty)
2. Intense flavour
3. Immediately delicious from the first bite
4. Melts in the mouth
5. Easy to eat
Using this tactic makes it easier to eat more food with less satiety. The easier it is to eat, the quicker it disappears from your tongue, and the easier it is to put another piece in your mouth. It keeps the eating cycle continuing.
In combination with the perfect flavours, it's now the supermarket's job to guide you to that food on the supermarket shelf. According to Nutrition Insight's article Health on the Shelf: Supermarket layout drives junk food choices by 36%, supermarkets are strategically laid out to encourage impulse purchases. As a result, food marketers will pay top dollar for the best strategically placed shelves. Nutrition Insight also tells us that healthy food is placed at the entrances, so customers first get a feel-good boost for choosing healthy foods. But then they are accosted with unhealthy foods on the ends of aisles or at the checkout, which are in bright, alluring packages. They must pass these areas to get the remaining healthy food, such as dairy or bread, which is often towards the back of the store. Our senses are engaged by every passing food, making them irresistible to ignore.
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Let's tally the score: emotive marketing messages, brightly coloured packaging, stimuli stacking, bliss points, and the big 5. So, how do we stand a chance against becoming addicted to our favourite processed foods?
When Moskowitz was asked if the bliss point makes food more addictive, he denied it. "No, it just makes it more delicious," he said. However, I don't see it this way. First, adding sugar, fat, or salt to products creates that rewarding flavour, making it easier to overeat and impact someone's health and waistline. Secondly, we become accustomed to these flavours, making swapping to the bitter, grainy, nutty, or less sweet flavours of healthier foods more difficult.
Furthermore, the more of these stimuli we eat, the more frequently we are rewarded in our brains for eating them. The more we experience that reward, the more we tightly connect food with the subsequent reward, making it difficult to control our cravings. It becomes a vicious, self-serving loop of consumption.
Now that you know how food companies and a supermarket can dupe you into eating more highly palatable foods, how will that change your purchasing habits?