London - Hear the words “bliss point” and it’s easy to assume the discussion must be about sex. But when Michael Moss uses the phrase it’s somewhat less seductive.
According to the award-winning investigative writer, “bliss point” is how manufacturers describe levels of sugar, fat and salt in processed food that are so alluring they seem guaranteed to have us coming back for more.
He spent more than three years investigating the science of junk food for his new book, Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. His findings make unpalatable reading.
Moss uncovered numerous tricks of the trade - from changing the physical shape of salt to altering the chemical make-up of sugar and even giving crisps a more noisy crunch - all of which can tempt us into buying foods that are often extremely unhealthy.
And, after talking to executives and scientists at multi-nationals such as Pepsi, Kraft, Unilever, Mars and Kellogg, he discovered that at the heart of corporate strategies is that unholy trinity of salt, sugar and fat. Moss found just how far the industry will go to harness their seductive powers.
Results from MRI-scanning studies are used by companies to study the sensory power of food - for example, how sugar lights up our brains the same way it does after someone has taken cocaine.
Manufacturers want to achieve a perfect link between food and joy in consumers’ brains to make us come back for more, so the industry has become obsessed with hitting this “bliss point”.
With sugar, the bliss point is the precise amount of sweetness that makes food and drink most enjoyable. It means scientifically testing thousands of customers’ preferences, constructing intricate mathematical formulae, and surveying populations for cultural and demographic differences.
Bliss points can vary between regions even in the same country. In China, people in the south have a sweeter tooth than those in the north. Bliss points also vary by age. Studies show that the bliss point for children can be an astonishing 36 percent sugar content in food - three times that of most adults.
But manufacturers who tickle the most bliss points generate by far the biggest profits - albeit at the cost of leaving many customers dangerously obese and on the borders of addiction. The junk food industry even labels loyal customers as “heavy users”, says Moss.
Moss, who works at The New York Times, interviewed food industry insiders to find out how and why companies produce products that are bad for people’s health, and their links to the growing obesity epidemic.
Along with sugar, the industry has learned over the past century how salt and fat complete an entrancing threesome of tastes that can over-ride our dietary self-control. Moss discovered how powerful these can be when he persuaded three of the biggest food manufacturers to let him sample their products with significantly reduced levels of the three ingredients.
Kellogg made Moss a salt-less version of savoury crackers he loves. “Without any salt, the crackers lost their magic. They felt like straw, chewed like cardboard, and had zero taste,” he says.
He adds that food factories love salt because, although it is barely more expensive than water, it has “miraculous powers” to boost the appeal of processed food.
The same happened with soups, meats and breads that other manufacturers, including Campbell, made for him. Moss says:
“Take more than a little salt, or sugar, or fat out of processed food, these experiments showed, and there is nothing left.
“Or, even worse, what is left are the inexorable consequences of food processing; repulsive tastes that are bitter, metallic and astringent.”
But rather than attempt to make products more appetising in themselves, the manufacturers have found it’s far cheaper to make salt, sugar and fat more alluring by interfering with their chemical make-up.
Moss says scientists at Nestlé are modifying the distribution and shape of fat globules in foods to affect their “mouth-feel” - an industry term for how our mouths sense food.
Brain science is revealing that the pleasure of fatty foods is as much about their feel as their taste. We feel fat through the trigeminal nerve, above and behind the mouth. It sends tactile information about fat to the brain, and the better the experience, the bigger the craving.
At the world’s leading supplier of salt, US-based company Cargill, scientists are pulverising the seasoning into a fine powder to hit taste buds faster and harder, improving its “flavour burst”, says Moss. Developments like this have made crisps more irresistible than 20 years ago.
Sugar is being altered in myriad ways. Not only have food scientists created enhancers to boost its sweetness up to 200 times, one component, fructose, has also been crystallised into an additive that boosts the allure of foods naturally low in it.
Medics are growing increasingly worried about health effects of fructose, because the body does not process fructose syrup in the same way as natural sugar. It places a far greater strain on the liver, and this prompts a range of problems, including raised levels of fat in the bloodstream, which are associated with cardiovascular disease.
Fructose-sugar has been listed on the ingredients of items such as Muller Light Vanilla Yoghurt, Yoplait Petits Filous, Mr Kipling Almond Slices, Bakewell Slices and Victoria Slices, Lucozade Energy drink, Carte D’or ice cream and McVitie’s HobNobs, Ginger Nuts and Jaffa Cakes.
There are many other health concerns about salt, fat and sugar. Excessive intake of salt has been linked with high blood pressure and heart disease. Over-consumption of fat is linked with obesity, diabetes and related epidemics.
In Britain, though, the foodmakers’ industry group, the Food and Drink Federation, argues its members are acting responsibly to lower salt levels and help customers to make healthy choices. Barbara Gallani, the federation’s director of food safety, science and health, says: “UK food and drink manufacturers’ efforts to tackle obesity and diet-related diseases are long-standing.”
Gallani adds that members have voluntarily cut salt levels by 10 percent in the past five years and improved product labelling. And she says: “Recent scientific reviews show there is no evidence to suggest food addiction exists in people, either to specific foods or to nutrients like sugar or fat. There is also no convincing evidence to show that people who are overweight display signs of addiction.”
But in America, Moss says, no one is more aware of these problems caused by salt, fat and sugar than the processed-food companies. The 11 heads of the largest US food companies, he says, met in secret in 1999 to discuss how to tackle the emerging obesity epidemic by changing recipes and strategies. But no positive action followed - the firms feel dependent on these ingredients.
In the UK over the past decade, manufacturers have reduced salt in their foods. But obesity levels have continued to rise, perhaps because companies have also learned to circumvent pressure to make their foods less unhealthy.
Moss explains that when foodmakers have to reduce one of their three key ingredients, they often raise the levels of the other two to make up for the lost allure. Thus, products labelled “low salt” may have higher levels of fat and sugar.
“It is one of the industry’s most devious moves,” says Moss. That is why we should all be very wary of products whose labels proclaim: “Now low in...”
Such tricks originate in one man’s betrayal of his brother more than 100 years ago. In the late 1890s, John Harvey Kellogg, an idealistic American doctor, had developed a sanatorium in the town of Battle Creek to cure Americans of their diet of meat, meat and more meat. Patients were put on strict regimes of dull-tasting health foods, but John then created a wheat breakfast cereal that seemed palatable.
But in 1906, his brother Will, who ran the accounts, added sugar to the corn flake mix. It was an instant hit. John was furious and the subsequent fight over the cereal ended up in the courts twice. In the end, Will won the right to market the sugared variety and use the family name.
Kellogg’s Toasted Corn Flakes heralded the highly profitable birth of the sweetened breakfast (followed by sweetened lunch and dinner). The Kellogg’s legacy is that it’s never been harder to avoid unhealthy processed foods.
But some people manage it - not least the executives at the big food companies - who tend not to eat their own food, according to Moss. “I found that many of the executives I talked to go out of their way to avoid their own products,” he says, “especially if they have run into health problems.” They prefer to eat fresh foods and take regular exercise to stay fit and healthy.
So if we really are going to take lifestyle inspiration from these bosses, we might best follow their example - by shunning their bliss points and avoiding much of what comes out of their factory gates. - Daily Mail