Outsmart the food companies to become a healthier, savvier eater

Story highlights

  • It's human nature for consumers to seek out foods that satisfy our cravings
  • Companies use a food's "bliss point" to give us what we want

(CNN)Like many people, I crave something sweet after every meal, no matter how full I am, to the point where it feels like an addiction. A colleague told me it wasn't an addiction, but a habit.

Still, the thought lingered: Do we experience true food cravings, perhaps as a result of an "addiction," or is it simply out of habit? And who's driving that habit -- me or the food companies?
    It's actually both: It's human nature for consumers to develop habits and seek out foods that satisfy our intense cravings. And so companies create products that meet people's sensory needs.
    "Food companies are interested in selling products that people want," said Gail Civille, founder and president of Sensory Spectrum, a consulting firm that helps companies learn how sensory cues drive consumer perceptions of products.
    "They run tests with consumers and ask them, 'How much do you like this one? Or that one?' The companies are trying to figure out what consumers want, and then they do testing to make sure the product has those elements in it -- and people like salt, fat and sugar."
    It's no surprise that food companies would aim to give consumers what they want in an effort to optimize sales. But the process behind product development is quite sophisticated. For companies, the key is finding a food's "bliss point."

    Discovering the 'bliss point'

    The key for companies is finding the "bliss point" of a food, or the product formulation you like most, according to Howard Moskowitz, an experimental psychologist who did pioneering work on bliss points and their role in product development when he was optimizing menus for soldiers in 1971. He's since helped major food and beverage companies such as Dr Pepper and Prego find bliss points for their products.
    He offered this example: "Let's just look at coffee with milk. Make some coffee, and pour it into seven cups. Start with no milk, and add a certain amount," such as you'd find in the tiny plastic containers at a diner.
    "Do this so you have zero, one, two, three, four, five and six added containers. The one at the left has no milk; the ones to the right have six different but increasing levels of milk. One of these is the 'tastiest' for you." This is your bliss point.
    How does bliss point play out behind the scenes, when it comes to product design and development? For new products, like pickles or pasta sauce, the company may systematically vary the ingredients and test these variations. It's not just one ingredient alone, but a set of them. Some ingredients appear at different levels. Others appear in different types (such as flavoring A or flavoring B).
    "The careful product developer makes the combinations, tests them and builds a mathematical model showing how the ingredients interact to drive liking," Moskowitz said. "The bliss point -- that's at the top. Sometimes, there are different bliss points, or 'optima,' say for people who like strong 'dark roast (coffee) brews' and those who like the regular or weaker 'lighter brews.' "
    Bliss points have been discovered for many foods -- even hummus and orange juice -- in order to appeal to consumers' sensory preferences. And this can help explain why, over time, foods evolve to have more sweetness.
    "Each generation of food marketers wants to increase acceptance, and the easiest way to do this for many foods is to add sugar," Moskowitz said. But it's a slippery slope.
    "You add just a little bit each time, so over the course of a decade, there's a bigger change." Thus, foods like condiments, tomato sauce and bread -- foods that we might not necessarily think of as sweet -- often contain added sugars.
    Tomato sauce can have 12 grams, about 3 teaspoons, of sugar per half-cup. That's more than you would find in a chocolate mini doughnut. Barbecue sauce can have 16 grams of sugar -- or 4 teaspoons in a 2-tablespoon serving -- more sugar than the amount in four chocolate chip cookies or eight sugar wafers. It's no wonder our palates have evolved to the point where we don't necessarily know what natural sweetness is anymore: Our taste buds have been, to some degree, externally manipulated over the years.

    Heading off food burnout

    Although bliss point may be used to find how much pulp an orange juice should contain or the optimal amount of fat for the tastiest ice cream, it has other applications, too. Bliss point has also been used to figure out at which point during a consumption period a person is most sated. But the two applications don't necessarily work together, because the same sensory characteristics that make your taste buds most excited can run the risk of burnout with each additional bite.
    The concept, known as sensory specific satiety, refers to a temporary decline in pleasure derived from consuming a certain food. The result, according to a study in the journal Appetite, is a decrease in a person's liking and desire for a specific food after eating it.
    "The more powerful your experience with the first couple of bites, the less satisfying each additional bite is," said Brian Wansink, director of Cornell University's Food and Brand Lab and author of "Slim by Design." The result: You get bored of eating relatively quickly. "When you eat salted caramel ice cream, the first two bites are incredible. But then there's a big jump by the time you get to bites six and seven. ... By then, you may be saying, 'Eh, this wasn't as good as it was initially.' "
    Interestingly, sensory specific satiety can be thought of as a human protection element -- and a way the body adapts in order to avoid sensory overload, according to Civille, of Sensory Spectrum. Imagine stepping slowly and carefully into a very hot bathtub. "At first, you feel HOT, HOT, HOT! But then your body adapts to the hot temperature in order to protect itself from having too much stimulation, as the brain cannot process all of the messages at once," Civille said. "In the case of food, adaptation results in fullness."
    Despite this scientific reality, the notion of sensory specific satiety doesn't stop companies from prioritizing taste experience, with the hope that you won't be able to stop after just one bite.
    "Companies are developing products for that initial 'Oh, my goodness!' with the first couple of bites," Wansink said. And even if the level of sensory satisfaction drops, if you start high enough, it won't necessarily matter.
    "The seventh and eighth bite of the salted caramel ice cream will still be pretty good," he said. "You're still far ahead of the grapefruit."
    In order to extend the amount of time it will take before you get bored of eating a food, its maker may include ingredient variety -- for example, making a raisin bran with yogurt puffs or oatmeal clusters. Wansink explains how: "If you mix popcorn with M&Ms, you can eat a lot more than you would if you ate either food alone, because the M&Ms counter the salty flavor of the popcorn, and the buttery popcorn counters the sweetness of the M&Ms."
    Civille agrees. "Without texture and flavor variety, you become full or burnt out. Any new input is not interesting." This phenomenon helps explain why kids -- and adults -- can say "I'm so full" after a meal but still have room for dessert. "Dessert is sweet and interesting."
    No wonder I need my sugar fix, even when I'm stuffed from a larger-than-usual meal. Perhaps I'm not truly addicted to sugar, but rather, my body has succumbed to the science of sensory specific satiety.

    Becoming an empowered eater

    The psychology that goes into finding a "bliss point" and coping with sensory specific satiety is significantly helpful for companies' bottom lines, but the practical takeaway can have implications for consumers' health, particularly when foods and beverages are consumed in excess.
    Changing kids' palates -- which already prefer sweet tastes -- toward sweetness can lead to weight gain, obesity and other health problems. In a world of such abundance, how can consumers become more educated and make the right choices? Here are some tips and tricks to help become savvier, healthier eaters:
    1. Find a food mantra. "What if we could find the messages to repeat to ourselves, almost like self-advertising, to get us to eat healthily?" asked Moskowitz. In fact, that's what the bliss point pioneer is working on now: messages that work for consumers. "The science is of words, but it's still looking for the bliss point. But now the bliss point is the combination of messages that a person will find compelling." You might ask yourself, "Am I really hungry? Do I really want this food? Or am I bored or stressed?" External motivation works too, he says. "Many people will remind themselves of goals, like, 'I want to look good in a dress for my daughter's wedding.' "
    2. Have a decent breakfast. It will help you avoid cravings, especially sugar cravings. "If your blood sugar is low (from skipping breakfast), you're going to start eating anything and everything," Civille said. But a bagel with nothing on it? You'll be hungry again by 10:30. "The key is to manipulate your own body's cravings by giving it the right kinds of foods to start with," she said. And different foods may work better for different people. "If I eat a bowl of oatmeal at 6:30, I'm not hungry until lunch."
    3. Wean your palate. You can change your palate to crave less sweet, salty, fatty foods. "Once people learn to like skim milk, whole milk is too much for them," Wansink said. One of the ways you can make it happen, he says, is to make sure you pair the product that contains less sugar, salt, fat, whatever -- with something that you do like.
    "Let's say you drink way too much Coke. You tell yourself you're going to drink Diet Coke instead, but you hate the taste of diet soda. So you pair it with something you do enjoy, like taking a walk." By doing this, he says, you don't experience the switch to diet soda as such a sacrifice, and eventually you will like it more. Or try making the switch from a sugary cereal to a more protein-rich breakfast. Something as simple as pairing cheese or ketchup with eggs can make a protein-rich breakfast more appealing, and eventually, you won't even crave the sugar.
    4. Add fat. "You should have some fat in your diet, because fat is interesting and satiating. It holds flavor and releases the flavor in a different way than a water-based system," Civille said. Consider the difference between a teaspoon of vanilla extract in heavy cream (that's so good!) versus skim milk (awful). The satiety and satisfaction that the fat offers will ultimately allow you to eat less. Spread peanut butter on apple slices or top a mixed green salad with a vinaigrette dressing.
    5. Choose portion-controlled snacks. Here's a case where package design (think 100-calorie packs) may be more costly, but they help you eat less, because they slow the pace of eating. "Having to open up three 100-calorie packs to get 300 calories of chocolate takes a longer time to eat and makes you less sated than if all 300 chocolate calories were in front of you," Wansink said. The result: People usually give up -- and consume fewer calories overall. To save money, buy snacks in bulk and make your own portion-controlled snacks at home using small plastic bags.
    6. Drink a glass of water. "Having a glass of water with you all the time is one way of dealing with sensory specific satiety," Civille said. "The sense of fullness reduces hunger and keeps us hydrated. Often, we eat when we, in fact, are thirsty or dehydrated."
    7. Choose cheese over chips at a party. "People immediately go to the bowl of chips, but you should be looking for the more protein-rich appetizer, which will give you more satiety," Civille said. A cube of cheese, shrimp or even a slider is a good choice.
    8. Don't go food shopping on an empty stomach. "When you go to the supermarket hungry, you buy things that you crave ... and those are typically not good choices, like ice cream, doughnuts and cookies, as opposed to buying more vegetables," Civille said. Wasnick agrees. "You buy more of the ready-to-eat convenience food, the stuff you can eat in the parking lot," he said.
    Here's food for thought: Simply eating a piece of fruit 30 minutes before going into a grocery store can significantly change your purchasing habits for the better. "Even just a piece of an apple before you leave -- or even a sample of one -- dramatically increases how much fruit you buy and decreases the amount of junk food," Wansink said.
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    9. Divide your cart in half. "An easy thing that we've discovered is the half-cart rule," Wansink said. "Divide your cart in half with a coat, purse or briefcase. The front half of the cart is reserved for fruits and vegetables. The back half of the cart is for whatever else I want. Simply doing this increases the amount of fruit and vegetables people buy by 25%-30%."
    10. Distract yourself. "There's a really neat study we did: We had people only eat a quarter as much of a snack as they usually eat in the afternoon," Wansink said. "So let's say you usually eat eight Hershey's Kisses, and we gave you two. We found that 15 minutes later, people rated themselves as equally full, satisfied and happy -- and less guilty!" But here's the important part: "After they had their first two bites, they had to put the food away -- they couldn't stare at it -- and they had to do something (active) for those 15 minutes to distract themselves, like cleaning the office or returning phone calls. They could not sit at the computer."
    The results were encouraging. "All they could remember is that they still tasted that chocolate, apple pie or potato chips -- and they realized they didn't deny themselves anything." But getting their minds off of the food was key. "They realized they can have what they enjoy -- as long as they can distract themselves enough to not think about it."