The old Lay’s Potato Chip challenge, “Betcha can’t eat just one” was not only a testament to the salty-crunchy deliciousness of the chips, it was also an unknowing hat tip to the ingrained human tendency to eat more than is probably good for you, at least in the 21st century.
Ever notice how, even if you’re not really hungry, taking a bite of a tasty food – that potato chip, say – triggers something in your brain that suddenly makes it all but impossible to stop eating until either you’re uncomfortably full or you reach the bottom of the bag?
Scientists believe this trigger is the result of our prehistoric ancestors having to survive in a world without fast-food restaurants on every other street corner. During those lucky periods when food was plentiful – after a successful mastodon hunt, for example – they evolved the ability to quickly gorge themselves as a hedge against what was sure to be a coming scarcity.
“We’re all wired the same,” said Craig “Skip” Julius, who describes himself as a chef with a science background. In his official capacity, he’s the culinary solutions manager with Sensient Flavors, an Indianapolis-based company that makes colors, flavors and fragrances for food and other industries.
This ability to “eat until you’re beat” is just one of a number of human tendencies that food companies exploit to get us to eat more of their products.
Julius’ research has led him to identify what he calls the Six Principles of Eating Pleasure – a half dozen ways that humans respond to food that manufacturers employ to tempt us to eat more:
Taste Hedonics: These are the flavors that make your mouth water. Think salt, sugar, fat, even monosodium glutamate.
Dynamic Contrast: We like contrasts in texture or flavor. Think of the crunchy-saltiness of those potato chips or how a light dusting of salt brings out the sweetness of a baked cookie.
Super Normal Stimulus: We love energy-dense food that is larger than expected. Think about how TV commercials show large, juicy hamburgers dripping with cheese, bacon and crispy lettuce.
Evoked Qualities: Food memories create cravings and fierce loyalty. Think about your grandmother’s tamales, or eating a melty ice cream cone during a summer vacation.
Energy Density: High-calorie foods equal high pleasure, especially those that “melt” in your mouth, tricking the body into believing they are not high in calories. Think cotton candy or Cheetos puffs.
Essential Aromas: If it smells good, it will likely taste good. Think brisket on the smoker or bread baking in the oven.
Julius makes no apology for how Big Food uses these and other principles, despite criticism that this is the basis for many of our current health woes, including diabetes, obesity and heart disease. As he said, that’s just the way we’re wired.
“It comes down to giving people what they want,” he said. “If you make something that tastes good, you create a loyal customer. That’s free-market capitalism, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.”
He does, however, contend that in the United States, there’s a lack of respect for the food we eat and compares our attitude negatively with that of Europeans.
“Americans see eating as a task to be checked off a list, while in Europe they see it as an opportunity to sit with people they enjoy, converse and eat a meal,” he said. “That’s why European meals take two, three hours.”
The message is that when we eat deliberately and consciously, we’re less likely to be overwhelmed by these food sensations that encourage us to overeat. And then perhaps we may be able to eat just one – or at most no more than a handful or two.