“Higher sugar, fat, and salt make you want to eat more,” a high-level food industry executive told me. I had already read this in the scientific literature and heard it in conversations with neuroscientists and psychologists. Now an insider was saying the same thing.
My source was a leading food consultant, a Henry Ford of mass-produced food who had agreed to part the curtain for me, at least a bit, to reveal how his industry operates. To protect his business, he did not want to be identified. But he was remarkably candid, explaining that the food industry creates dishes to hit what he called the “three points of the compass.” Sugar, fat, and salt make a food compelling, said the consultant. They make it indulgent. They make it high in hedonic value, which gives us pleasure.
“Do you design food specifically to be highly hedonic?” I asked.
“Oh, absolutely,” he replied without a moment’s hesitation. “We try to bring as much of that into the equation as possible.”
During the past two decades there has been an explosion in our ability to access and afford highly palatable foods. Restaurants—where Americans spend 50 percent of today’s food dollar—sit at the epicenter of this explosion.
Countless new foods have been introduced in restaurants, and most of them hit the three points of the compass. Sugar, fat, and salt are either loaded onto a core ingredient (such as meat, vegetable, potato, or bread), layered on top of it, or both. Deep-fried tortilla chips are an example of loading—the fat is contained in the chip itself. When a potato is smothered in cheese, sour cream, and sauce, that’s layering.
I asked the food consultant to describe the ingredients in some foods commonly found in popular restaurants today.
Potato skins, for example: Typically the potato is hollowed out and the skin is fried, which provides a substantial surface area for what he calls “fat pickup.” Then some combination of bacon bits, sour cream, and cheese is added. The result is fat on fat on fat on fat, much of it loaded with salt.
Cheese fries “take a high-fat food and put more fat on top of it,” he said. The potato base is a simple carbohydrate, which quickly breaks down to sugar in the body. Once it’s fried and layered with cheese, we’re eating salt on fat on fat on sugar.
Buffalo wings start with the fatty parts of a chicken, which get deep-fried. Then they’re served with creamy or sweet dipping sauce that’s heavily salted. Usually they’re par-fried at a production plant, then fried again at the restaurant, which essentially doubles the fat. That gives us sugar on salt on fat on fat on fat.
“Spinach dip” is a misnomer. The spinach provides little more than color and a bit of appeal; a high-fat, high-salt dairy product is the main ingredient. It’s a tasty dish of salt on fat.
Chicken tenders are so loaded with batter and fat that my source jokes that they’re a UFO—an unidentified fried object. Salt and sugar are loaded into the fat.
The White Chocolate Mocha Frappuccino served at Starbucks is coffee diluted with a mix of sugar, fat, and salt. The whipped cream is optional.
Bloomin’ Onions—the trademark Outback Steakhouse dish—are very popular, and they too provide plenty of surface area to absorb fat. Fried in batter and topped with sauce, their flavor comes from salt on sugar on fat.
Salads contain vegetables, of course, but in today’s restaurants they’re more than likely to be smothered in a cream-based ranch dressing and flavored with cheese chunks, bacon bits, and oily croutons. The food consultant calls this “fat with a little lettuce,” although there’s salt in the salad as well. Even lettuce has become a vehicle for fat.
I began reading the Cheesecake Factory menu to my industry source. He called the chain, known for its vast spaces and equally vast portions, “an icon of indulgence.”
We started with the appetizers.
“Tex Mex Eggrolls: Spicy chicken, corn, black beans, peppers, onions, and melted cheese. Served with avocado cream and salsa,” I read. The food consultant said the avocado alone is about 15 to 20 percent fat, and that’s before any mayonnaise or heavy cream is loaded in. A fried outer layer wraps fat and salt around more fat.
“Roadside Sliders: Bite-sized burgers on mini-buns served with grilled onions, pickles, and ketchup.” The words suggest a cute little hamburger, but he said there’s salt and fat in the meat, and sugar and salt in the caramelized onions and the ketchup. In reality, this dish is fat surrounded by layers of sugar on salt on sugar on salt, making it another grand slam.
“Chicken Pot Stickers: Oriental dumplings pan-fried in the classic tradition. Served with our soy dipping sauce.” Frying the pot stickers replaces the water in the wrapper with fat. The layer of meat inside is loaded with salt, while the outside layer of sauce is rich with sugar and salt. “That’s hitting all the points,” my source said, sounding almost rueful.
“Buffalo Blasts: Chicken breast, cheese, and our spicy buffalo sauce, all stuffed in a spiced wrapper and fried until crisp. Served with celery sticks and blue cheese dressing.”
For a moment the food consultant just laughed. “What can I say? That’s fat, sugar, and salt.” Chicken breast allows us to suspend our guilt because it suggests a low-fat dish, and the celery sticks also hint at something healthy. But the cheese layer is at least 50 percent fat and carries a load of salt, and the buffalo sauce adds a layer of sugar on salt. That dough wrapper—a simple carbohydrate—is fried and so absorbent that he called it “a fat bomb.”
Just as chicken becomes the carrier for fat in the Buffalo Blasts, pizza crust can be a carrier for sugar and fat. Caesar salads are built as an excuse to carry fat and salt. We double-fry french fries, first at the manufacturing plant and then in the restaurant. Our hamburgers are layered with bacon and cheese. We add cheese to spinach, batter our fish before frying it, and slather our Mexican food with cheese. As we do, each one of these foods “becomes more compelling, more hedonic,” said the consultant.
As our conversation wound down, he walked me to the door of his office and paused, as if choosing his words carefully. Then, with the certainty of an insider, he observed that the food industry is “the manipulator of the consumers’ minds and desires.
Animals, humans included, seem to have a built-in preference for features larger than those that occur naturally. Ethologists, scientists who study animal behavior, have tried to understand the attraction of “supernormal stimuli.”
Consider the oystercatcher, a shorebird with black-and-white plumage, a red bill, and brightly colored legs. Back in the 1950s, Dutch ethologist Nikolaas Tinbergen conducted now-classic studies of the bird’s incubation behavior and discovered something astonishing: When presented with a choice between brooding its own small egg and the giant egg of a much larger bird, the oystercatcher invariably chose to sit on the giant one.
Research with the herring gull and the greylag goose uncovered much the same thing. Both of these birds prefer an egg that is biologically impossible for them to have laid.
We also see this with butterflies. When a male is courting, he’ll be drawn to the female by the rate at which she flickers her wings. But when a butterfly is presented with some kind of artificial stimuli that flickers even faster, that’s what he’ll prefer.
Most of the relevant research about supernormal stimuli was conducted decades ago, although some contemporary writers and scientists have taken on the topic as it relates to food in recent years as well. I wanted to talk to one of the original researchers in the field. John Staddon, now a professor of biology and neurobiology at Duke University, seemed startled to be tracked down as an expert on the subject. “I wrote some stuff on this years and years ago,” he told me, surprised that I had uncovered his work.
His early findings seemed to deserve new scrutiny as I considered the possible analogies to food.
Staddon and I talked about the concept of “asymmetrical selection pressure.” From the standpoint of evolution, a bird’s preference for a larger egg over a smaller one makes sense. Smaller eggs are more likely to be nonviable, so birds that consistently choose them would not have been likely to survive as a species. Their preference for a giant egg is a logical extension of a preference for the egg that seems most likely to be viable.
I asked Staddon about the kind of food we eat today. “Now I’m eating very energy-dense sugar and fat,” I said. “And I’ve artificially created it. It didn’t exist in the wild. Is it a supernormal stimulus?”
It would be, said Staddon. “It is not only exaggerated, it also has never been seen in nature.” Those features define the term.
“Why do I prefer an exaggerated stimulus?” I asked.
“Your ancestors were punished for preferring a smaller-than-normal stimulus but not punished for preferring a larger-than-normal stimulus,” explained Staddon, harkening back to asymmetrical selection pressure. He talked about the “gradient of preference” established by evolution—whether it’s a gigantic egg or a hyperpalatable food, a lot seems to be more desirable than a little. An entertainment spectacle, such as Disneyland or Las Vegas, attracts us in much the same way.
Today’s choices only push us further along that gradient. “In the selection pressures acting on the species, more sugar was always better than less,” said Staddon. The amount of sugar in food today goes beyond the level we could have experienced naturally—and that just means we desire it all the more.
Our diet today is mostly made up of “easy calories.” According to Gail Civille, in the past Americans typically chewed a mouthful of food as many as twenty-five times before it was ready to be swallowed; now the average American chews only ten times.
In part this is because fat, which has become ubiquitous, is a lubricant. We don’t eat as much lean meat, which requires more saliva to ready it for swallowing. “We want something that’s higher in fat, marbled, and so when you eat it, it melts in your mouth,” said Civille. Food is easier to eat when it breaks down more quickly in the mouth. “If I have fat in there, I just chew it up and whoosh! Away it goes.”
John Haywood, a prominent restaurant concept designer, agreed. Processing, he said, creates a sort of “adult baby food.” By “processing” he means removing the elements in whole food—like fiber and gristle—that are harder to chew and swallow. What results is food that doesn’t require much effort to eat. “It goes down very easy; you don’t even think much about eating it,” said Haywood.
The food consultant who told me about his industry’s secrets had much the same perspective. “We’ve gone through some kind of a metamorphosis over the years. We’ve made food very easy to get calories from.” He talked about the greater degree to which we refine foods now; an example is how we mill away the bran from brown rice and whole wheat flour. As a result the food is “light, it’s white, it’s very easy to swallow. It doesn’t obstruct you in any way. It’s easy to get a lot of calories without a lot of chewing.”
Because this kind of food disappears down our throats so quickly after the first bite, it readily overrides the body’s signals that should tell us “I’m full.” He offered coleslaw as an example. When its ingredients are chopped roughly, it requires time and energy to chew. But when cabbage and carrots are softened in a high-fat dressing, coleslaw ceases to be “something with a lot of innate ability to satisfy.”
Contrast apples with applesauce and we can see the same phenomenon. When the peel is removed, much of the fiber is lost. “Then we add sugar to it; we make it so you can practically drink the thing. It doesn’t ever provide the satiation of a fresh apple that you have to chew on.”
This isn’t to say that the food industry wants us to stop chewing altogether. It knows we want to eat a doughnut, not drink it. “What are you going to do with the sugar, put it on your tongue?” asked the food consultant. “I want to chew. I want to feel it in my mouth. The key for the food industry is to create foods with just enough chew—but not too much.”
Foods that go “whoosh” don’t leave us with a sense of being well fed. By stripping food of fiber, we also strip it of its capacity to satisfy. In making food disappear so swiftly, fat and sugar only leave us wanting more.
Instead of paying attention to what goes into our mouths, we’re engaged in a “shoveling process,” said Nancy Rodriguez. An expert on the sensory properties of food and head of the product development firm Food Marketing Support Services, Rodriguez asserts, “We eat to be belly filled.”
There’s a contradiction in all of this. At the same time manufacturers are making so much stimulating, high-fat, high-sugar food so readily available, they’re also responding to consumer concerns about health. Indeed, this is a substantial area of activity and profit for the industry.
Many food producers and restaurants now provide nutrition calculators on their Web sites, allowing consumers to add up the calories in their foods and find out how much fat, sodium, carbohydrates, and sugar they’re eating. And some surprising alliances have been formed in the name of health. T.G.I. Friday’s partnered with Atkins Nutritionals to create a menu that appeals to people on the low-carbohydrate Atkins diet. Wendy’s is working with the American Dietetic Association to offer consumers educational tools about nutrition.
That kind of paradox reflects broader industry trends, according to Datamonitor, a leading supplier of “business intelligence.” In one of its consumer-trends reports, the company declares that “the desire for health and indulgence represents a trend clash.” Consumers looking to satisfy seemingly contradictory desires represent an important market opening, according to the report, which proclaims: “Healthy indulgence is a vast opportunity that is underdeveloped by the food and drinks industry.”
Increasingly, the industry is supplementing its products with chemicals to persuade consumers that the food is good for them. It’s all about grabbing “the consumer’s attention” by making “compelling” claims that sometimes “seem to be an exercise in creative writing,” admit industry experts.
Apparently, it’s working. What used to be the domain of small, specialty health-food stores has attracted national competitors. Kellogg’s, for example, introduced candy bars containing the chemical DHA (a fatty acid), labeled them “Live Bright brain health bars,” and made bold claims about their value in sustaining brain health. Whatever the merits and potential health benefits of DHA, if any, the other ingredients are no surprise—mostly sugar and fat.
Most restaurants don’t make those kinds of claims for their meals, but those who sell the most indulgent sugar-on-fat-on-salt combinations often market low-fat meals as well. Hardee’s, home of the Monster Thickburger, proudly announces that its health-conscious customers need not “leave taste behind,” and offers up a charbroiled BBQ chicken sandwich, with 340 calories and 4 grams of fat. Chili’s includes Guiltless Grill listings on its menu, with “more choices for your healthy lifestyle.” McDonald’s is marketing its fruit-and-walnut salad aggressively, with photos of the new dish prominently displayed in drive-through lanes and near in-store order counters.
But are those products selling? One food industry executive shrugged off the question. “Who cares?” he asked. “You’re going to build your image.”