Understanding your 'Bliss point'
Barely a week goes by without an alarming statistic regarding obesity surfacing. The reasons behind populations growing waistlines are well documented: sedentary lifestyles; medical conditions; not enough healthy food; and too much processed food. Processed food – think chocolate, crisps, sausage rolls and cereals – are often packed with added sugar, salt, fat and other additives. They can be highly addictive and, in large quantities, potentially harmful. What's more, according to a study last year, Britons eat more processed food than any other European nation – 51% of our diet on average.
Why can't we get enough of manufactured/processed food, even when we increasingly read about the negative outcomes? The answer, at least in part, can take the form of three small words: the bliss point.
Michael Moss, author of 'Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked us' describes, "The bliss point is an industry reference to the perfect amount of sugar in products that will get us to not just like those products, but to want more and more... "It's a specific reference to sugar, although it's been used more broadly to refer to the incredible allure that processed foods have." Manufactured food is made by food companies who have the capacity to tinker with precise amounts of ingredients to send us into delirium. When the right combinations are achieved, a 'bliss point' is reached, making products irresistible.
The problem is that the allure is heightened when salt, sugar and fat are combined (the latter two, it should be noted, rarely mix to notable levels in nature). Fizzy Cola drinks, with its perfect blending of flavours, is one of the main examples Moss cites in his book. "You don't get too much lemon flavour, or sugar, or any of the other ingredients. If you get too much of one, your brain goes 'Woah! I think you've had enough of that'. They pay careful attention to balancing out all their ingredients, but especially salt, sugar and fat." The origins can be traced back to the 1970's and 1980's when developments in food science were able to hone and perfect our sensory taste reaction. That also happens to be the same period when statisticians identify a massive spike in obesity levels.
Alongside the bliss point, Moss encountered a whole cohort of expressions, and newly coined words used by manufacturers and developers. Engineered terms such as 'craveability', 'snackability', ‘mouthfeel’ and 'moreishness'. Words that are currently commonplace in our vocabulary. Years of highly advanced science have gone into producing - for example - the perfect packet of biscuits. While there's nothing inherently wrong with sweet things, humans have evolved to treat sweetness as a primary reward, the issue presented to consumers is that sweetness is now too readily available. As Francis McGlone, a neuroscientist at Liverpool John Moores University, puts it: "People are now less able to regulate that reward." In today’s reality, bliss points have not only been created for soft drinks, biscuits, chocolate bars and crisps – in other words stuff we know is bad – but supposedly healthy products, too.
McGlone explains that our sensory systems are contrast detectors. This means changing textures are much more interesting to taste buds, and therefore to the brain, then boring foods that don't change consistency (chewing gum, for example, after that initial flavour hit). Thus a chocolate bar or ice cream will melt in the mouth; crisps will crunch. Food companies know this will keep us coming back for more.
Moss points to an interesting textural phenomena discovered by food scientists: vanishing caloric density. The human body, he explains, is pretty good at detecting calories. After all, they were once our primary concern. But clever brains at food corporations can get around that. Cheese puffs are a highly fatty, salty (and often sugary) snack. But when they melt in the mouth, our brain thinks the calories disappear along with the puff. Clever stuff – we're thus able to eat a lot more puffs.
With this in mind, can we predict a better future on the horizon? There's certainly a growing awareness around the dangers of sugar, salt and saturated fat, and food companies are more and more exclaiming their attempts and intention to reduce salt and sugar while maintaining the allure of their products. However, awareness is a powerful tool and can empower us to make our own decisions and be responsible for our own personal actions. So next time you grab that packet of biscuits, think about why it's so ‘moreish’. Perhaps that reminder will help you place it back on the supermarket shelf.
Extracts taken from "Beware the 'bliss point' – the sinister reason why you can't put down your favourite snacks." Tomé Morrissy-Swan