Show me a chicken nugget and I will show you the world. The world, that is, of highly palatable foods engineered by the food industry to go down easily — in some cases, to quite literally “melt in the mouth” — while also stimulating us to crave more.
Commercial foods like chicken nuggets, French fries, chips, crackers, cookies and pastries are designed to be virtually irresistible. And, for a lot of reasons most of us don’t fully understand, they are.
There’s a “biological basis for why it’s so hard for millions of Americans to resist food,” former FDA commissioner David Kessler, MD, explained in a recent National Public Radio (NPR) interview. “We are all wired to focus on the most salient stimuli in our environment,” he says. “For some of us, it could be alcohol; it could be illegal drugs; it could be gambling, sex or tobacco. For many of us, though, one of the most salient stimuli in our environment is food. And how do you make food even more salient? Fat, sugar and salt.”
Of course, fat, sugar and salt have been around as kitchen staples for centuries, but it wasn’t until the past few decades that they became as abundant and cheap as they are now. And during the course of those same few decades, food manufacturers have been busily leveraging science and technology to enhance their products — manipulating food in ways that not only play on our innate fondness for sugar, salt and fat, but also dramatically boost their overall taste, texture, aroma and appearance.
Think about the flavor of beef infused into McDonald’s signature French fries, the creamy filling injected into a Twinkie or the fake crosshatched grill marks stamped onto a KFC grilled chicken breast, and you begin to get the idea. The stuff regularly served up at every chain restaurant, gas station and food court amounts to an edible — and irresistible — amusement park. And it’s all fueled by food science and technology we’d have a hard time imitating at home.
“It’s the multisensory combinations that provide the roller coaster in your mouth,” says Kessler, a professor at the University of California–San Francisco and author of The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite. And over the past 30 years, food manufacturers have been coming up with increasingly wild rides.
“When we were kids,” recalls Kessler, “it was enough to put sugar in water, add a little coloring and get a relatively simple sensory experience called Kool-Aid. Since then, food makers have upped the ante.” Today we’ve got Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and Double Chocolate Strawberry Cake Krispy Kreme doughnuts. Doritos brand snacks come in more than a dozen different varieties (including “Late Night All Nighter Cheeseburger”), all of which promise to “deliver a powerful crunch that unlocks the bold and unique flavors you crave.”
If we’re going to stand any chance of resisting this new breed of consumables, we need to have a better understanding about what we’re up against. That starts with a brief lesson in food technology.
This Is Your Brain on Processed Food
The human brain has many attributes, but resisting Krispy Kreme doughnuts is not one of them. “The most salient foods are those with fat, sugar and salt,” Kessler reminds us. “The advantage those foods have is that they are hardwired from our taste receptors directly into our brains.”
Being attracted to high-calorie foods worked to our advantage when food was scarce and humans had to hunt and gather for a living, explains Christopher Ochner, PhD, a professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University’s Obesity Research Center. “The problem is that, today, the food never runs out.”
On the contrary, it’s dangled in front of us around the clock. Food makers capitalize on the body’s drive for calorie-dense food by providing a steady, inexpensive supply of the stuff that’s rendered virtually irresistible through techno- and science-savvy enhancements that our brains and bodies have not yet developed resistance to.
The taste preferences that food-product designers play upon today evolved over many thousands of years as a survival mechanism, notes Dana Small, PhD, a brain researcher at Yale University School of Medicine. They were a means for our ancestors to identify which foods had the dense caloric value their bodies needed to support huge daily energy expenditures. Hardwired as they are, these preferences aren’t something from which we can easily free ourselves.
“You may not even like the taste of a sugary treat initially,” Small says, “but as long as it has a major caloric impact, the brain will keep you coming back for more.” That’s why we are more easily triggered to want cake than to want carrots. “Carrots are better for you, but they have fewer calories,” Small explains. And from the human body’s instinctive, short-term perspective, calories are more essential than nutrients for survival.
The fact that evolutionary food cues from our primordial past still sway our behavior today wouldn’t be such a problem if the cue for cake came only occasionally, as it did in generations past. But thanks to the growth of fast-food restaurants and the ubiquitous presence of processed foods — at schools, drugstores and even hospitals — the cue for a high-calorie treat may now confront us several times a day.
“You can’t walk 10 steps without tripping over a McDonald’s and falling into a Wendy’s,” says Ochner. “Highly rewarding food is available everywhere.”
And the chemicals in our brains are not designed to help us resist. Dopamine, for one, is a neurotransmitter that creates and sustains focus. Thanks to dopamine’s knack for keeping the brain focused on the most pressing stimuli, our ancestors outmaneuvered predators. But dopamine can also shackle the brain to stimuli such as drugs, alcohol or food. It makes certain stimuli highly meaningful, explains Kessler (who admits his focus is easily usurped by chocolate-chip cookies): “For each of us it’s going to be different, but the food industry knows that layering fat on top of sugar on top of salt makes the food that much harder for the brain to resist.”
A Sensory Explosion
When it comes to creating irresistible food products, the fat-sugar-salt trio is only one part of a rather involved, high-stakes industrial strategy. Manufacturers also work hard to develop mouth-watering aromas and carefully engineered textures. They also invest in ad campaigns that equate their products with happiness and success. “The more multisensory the stimuli,” says Kessler, “the greater the reward and the stronger the emotional cues.”
Companies are willing to pay big bucks for “sensory science,” the kind of in-depth research that tells them exactly how to design a product that appeals to all the senses. No one knows this better than Gail Vance Civille, founder and president of Sensory Spectrum, a New Jersey–based consumer research firm. Civille tests consumer reactions across a range of different sensory areas.
In the all-important area of taste, for example, what used to be a simple question of sweet versus savory has evolved into a complex science that the food industry calls “flavor dynamics.”
Take a basic chocolate bar. The expert tasters at Sensory Spectrum identified a wide range of flavors in a basic chocolate bar — everything from winey, woody, nutty, citrusy, floral, alkaline and sourness to flavors of soap, cardboard, casein, cooked milk, spray-dried milk and developed milk. A client can then take this information and tweak its formulas to boost certain flavors and suppress others.
Civille and her colleagues will also evaluate a product’s texture. Food manufacturers are always searching for the perfect “mouthfeel,” which is why fat is so prevalent in processed food. Fat not only bestows crunch, creaminess and contrast, but it also blends flavors and even acts as a lubricant, allowing people to eat faster. “Fat adds to a smooth, even bolus (the wad that forms when you chew food) in the mouth,” says Kessler.
Another texture trick is to presoften food by mashing it. “The substrate of today’s foods has been removed, meaning processed food is basically prechewed,” notes Kessler. This allows us to eat things like chicken tenders more quickly and easily, which can lead to unconscious eating — and overeating.
“We used to have foods that took more work,” Civille explained in a recent NPR interview. “In the [45 years] that I have been in the food business, we used to have foods that we chewed 15 times and 20 times and 30 times before we swallowed. Now, there’s rarely a food out there, outside of a sweet, chewy candy, that you have to chew more than 12 times before it’s gone.” Instead, after a couple quick chews and a swallow, “you’re in for the next hit to get more pleasure.” (For more on exactly how the food industry manufactures the perfect texture, see “Anatomy of a Chicken Nugget” below.)
Breaking the Processed Food Addiction
With two-thirds of Americans now overweight, it’s safe to say that our processed-food addiction is messing with our metabolisms as well as our brains. A number of health experts, including Kessler, assert that food companies are actively capitalizing on our genetically hardwired impulses. Food scientists like Civille, meanwhile, argue that the food industry is simply giving people what they want. They may both be right.
Civille, for her part, says she does not believe the food industry is consciously trying to “design food to trick, track or coerce consumers.” But she does agree with Kessler that government and media both have a role to play in helping to educate consumers about what goes into the processed foods we consume and how some of that pleasure-boosting science and technology can work against us.
Regulations, incentives and information campaigns may all be a long time coming, though. In the meantime, here are some tips that you can use to curb your consumption of processed foods and to reduce your vulnerability to conditioned hypereating:
- Create structure: The Achilles’ heel of a healthy diet, says Kessler, is being caught off-guard — hungry and at the mercy of your environment. Instead, plan what you’re going to eat and when. Meals and snacks should be eaten at regular intervals, and they should be appealing enough to keep you satisfied (versus feeling tempted to make a fast-food run), but predictable enough that your senses don’t feel overstimulated.
- Eat substantial foods: Foods made from ingredients that race willy-nilly through your digestive system, like simple sugars and refined flours, are not as satisfying as foods that digest more gradually. Protein has the best staying power, taking 2.5 times longer to digest than simple sugars. High-fiber foods, like legumes, fruits, veggies and whole grains, also leave the body feeling full longer because they add volume to meals and take longer to digest.
- Re-size portions: In a culture of super-sized portions, it’s easy to forget how much it really takes to feel satisfied (vs. stuffed). To regain a sense of portion control, try eating only half your normal amount of food at a single meal. Then pay close attention to how your body feels 30 minutes later. Notice how you feel 90 minutes later. For most people, a just-right meal is one that staves off hunger for about four hours; a just-right snack keeps you satisfied about two hours, says Kessler, who calls this practice “just-right eating.”
- Get comfortable with eating real food: A lot of people opt for easy-to-eat processed foods because “they don’t like to be embarrassed when they eat,” says Civille. “They don’t want to get something stuck in their teeth, and they don’t like to be eating complicated foods in public.” In the United States, many otherwise-civilized adults aren’t confident of proper knife-and-fork techniques, which may incline them toward bite-size, hand-held and nuggetized foods, thereby limiting the array of whole foods they eat regularly. If you don’t yet feel confident eating real foods and enjoying them in all their lovely messiness, make a point of developing that confidence.
- Change your relationship with food: Instead of looking at food as if it’s your friend, try and deactivate those emotional connections, says Kessler: “I look at food that’s highly processed and I say, ‘It’s only going to stimulate me. It’s not going to sate me. It’s only going to make me want more.” In much the same way we changed our view of tobacco from a sexy to a decidedly unsexy thing, he adds, we can try to do the same with processed food.
- Don’t bring it into the house: If your pantry is full of processed foods, some part of you will be constantly aware of their presence. Those foods will “call out to you,” says Kessler, and just seeing them, or even knowing they are there on the shelf, may be enough to activate your brain and trigger cravings.
- Don’t resort to deprivation: It’s not that you can’t ever have another serving of French fries. In fact, Kessler argues, adopting a mindset of deprivation will just trigger more intense cravings. The goal is to reclaim control over what you eat and when, and to stay conscious of your entire eating experience — before, during and after.
Ultimately, taking back your mind and metabolism means becoming more aware of not only what you eat but also what drives you to eat it. Self-awareness is the greatest tool people can wield against the assault of processed foods, says Kessler.
But remember: Self-awareness doesn’t mean self-denial. It means learning how to delight in foods that are good for you, and how to enjoy less healthy edible pleasures in moderation, on occasion, when you consciously decide to.
“By consciously paying attention to the pleasures of taste and the experience of eating, you can deepen the reward value of any food you choose,” says Kessler, “so choose well.”
Anatomy of a Chicken Nugget
Ever wonder what goes into making a chicken nugget? And ever wonder why they’re so easy to eat (and eat and eat)? Here’s more than you probably wanted to know:
- BITE-SIZE: Before breading, the gelatinous meat product is squeezed into a casing and cooked. After it cools, the casing is sliced into uniform nugget-sized discs, making them that much easier to pop into your mouth (no silverware required — and hey, those nuggets are so small, it’s like you’re hardly eating anything, right?).
- “PRECHEWED” MEAT: Assorted pieces of chicken meat are finely chopped to free myofibrillar proteins that act as “glue” to bind the bits of meat together. Texture-enhancing binders (such as breading or powdered egg white) are added to help create a “gelling” effect that gives the nuggets shape. Flavors, natural and artificial, are mixed in. So are ingredients that hold in moisture, such as sodium phosphate, soy protein concentrate and autolyzed yeast extract. The net effect? A boneless, prechewed quality that produces a smooth and even bolus in your mouth and that invites overeating.
- WHITE-ISH MEAT: It could be white meat — or it could be dark meat (about a third of the cost of white meat) that has been whitened with the use of whey protein concentrate and whey protein isolate. Although dark meat is often more flavorful, white meat apparently looks more uniform and more appealing to American eyes. As one industry document puts it, “American consumers have expressed a strong preference for poultry white meat over dark meat due to color. Turning dark meat into white could open new markets and revenue sources.”
- CRUNCH FACTOR: The breading on a chicken nugget is mostly flour (but can also contain gums, starches, sugars and chemically derived flavors). It adds inexpensive heft to the nugget (up to 30 percent of its weight) and provides a material for the nugget’s crispy outside layer — a key factor in the sensory experience. The breading also provides an appealing, uniform color (some manufacturers add a caramel coloring agent to the nugget to enhance the golden, fried look) and toasty aroma. Finally, the breading provides a moisture barrier to prevent water loss, creating a moister interior that contributes to a satisfying mouthfeel.
- FRIED TO A CRISP: The chicken nugget is dunked in a vat of hot, liquid fat (most often, a cheap vegetable oil such as soybean, sunflower or safflower oil — it depends on market price and availability), which causes the protein to denaturalize and the starch in the breading to become more gel-like. A crust forms on the nugget’s outer layer. During deep-frying, much of the nugget’s original water content is replaced with oil.
- SWEET SAUCE: Most of the sauces served with chicken nuggets (barbecue, sweet and sour, etc.) have an array of added sugars in them. Others, like ranch and blue-cheese dressings, contain creamy dairy ingredients rich in natural sugars. This helps to create the fat-sugar-salt trio that renders so many processed foods irresistible. Although the ingredients of one popular restaurant chain’s ginger-citrus sauce sound relatively ordinary (sugar, hoisin sauce, vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, chili paste, modified food starch and orange juice concentrate), sugar and salt dominate. The dipping action produces new sensory elements — mixing cool with hot, crispy with creamy, savory with sweet, mellow with spicy, and so on.
This article originally appeared as “Scary Food Science.”