Can’t Resist Some Foods? It’s Not Your Fault

May 16, 2017

Read the original article by Martha Rosenberg from OpEdNews.

Image credit: Martha Rosenberg

Have you noticed the overpowering something-in-the-oven smell that wafts up when you walk past a Subway? Mark Christiano, Subway’s Global Baking Technologist, insists the aroma is not pumped outside to entice passers-by but adds that the bread recipe is “proprietary.”

The truth is in the war for your food dollar, all tactics are on the table from the way a food smells and looks to the way it feels in your mouth.

“Food technologists” use $40,000 devices that simulate a chewing mouth to test and perfect chips, for example. “People like a chip that snaps with about four pounds of pressure per square inch,” says Michael Moss, author of Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us so technologists seek “the perfect break point.”

Fat is a big part of the food technology stagecraft too because it promotes crunch, creaminess and contrast, blends flavors and even lubricates mouthfuls so that people eat faster. And, speaking of fast eating–the actual time it takes to chew food has shrunk. “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,” says Gail Vance Civille, of the consumer research firm Sensory Spectrum. Now most foods only have to be chewed 12 times and “you’re in for the next hit to get more pleasure,” says Civille.

Food technologists fabricate “complex formulas that pique the taste buds enough to be alluring but don’t have a distinct, overriding single flavor that tells the brain to stop eating,” says Moss. And you thought you just had no self-control!

Here are some foods deliberately designed to hook you at the first whiff or taste.

Soft drinks

Half of Americans drink a soft drink every day and many people admit they are addicted. This is not an accident. To create Cherry Vanilla Dr Pepper, for example, food technologists tested 3,904 “tastings” or versions for “dryness,” “gumminess” and “moisture release,” color and the right mix of cherry, vanilla and Dr Pepper flavoring.

Mountain Dew is arguably the most addictive of all soft drinks including among some gamers who reportedly drink it nonstop. While Dew certainly packs a lot of caffeine, it derives its fizzy bite from phosphoric, citric, malic and tartaric acids, all kept afloat by a controversial additive known as BVO or brominated vegetable oil. BVO, which some food processors are starting to phase out, is also a flame retardant. Yum.

Cured Meats

Bacon has become a flavor added everywhere. Unfortunately its taste is created by the controversial sodium nitrite also found in ham, pastrami, salami and Slim Jims. During cooking, nitrites combine with other chemicals to form carcinogens which many health organizations warn against.

Bacon can be made without sodium nitrite but consumers at test kitchens say it is too pale and doesn’t taste like bacon. The New York Times food writer R.W. Apple himself states that “nitrates provide some of the characteristic bacon flavor, and the only nitrite-free bacon I have sampled tasted more like roast pork.”

Microwave Popcorn

Have you ever tried to secretly make microwave popcorn at work and found a line of people who smelled it and want to help you eat it?

The irresistible smell is from butter flavoring chemicals like diacetyl and Pentanedione which are dissipated into the air by the heating process. Not surprisingly, there are safety questions. Lawsuits have been brought and won by both workers and consumer who developed “popcorn lung,” a serious condition, from diacetyl.


Snacks are designed by food technologists to have “vanishing caloric density” or the ability to melt in the mouth. If something melts quickly, your brain thinks that there’s no calories in it so you keep eating.

Potato chips have another hook. Their starch is absorbed more quickly than their sugar, which causes glucose levels in the blood to spike and the body to yell “more!”

Fast food, of course, is predicated on being irresistible. Eighty-three percent of people who eat outside of their home do so because of “cravings” and 75 percent who visit restaurants more than once a week do so for a specific dish they crave.

Sweet, salty and fatty foods are hard to resist when they are ubiquitous, cheap and marketed around the clock. But just to be on the safe side, Big Food’s food technologists amp up their irresistibility.

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