Potato Chip Science

Mmm. Salty snacks

Last August, Traci Carneal reported of the Association for Convenience & Fuel Retailing on the popularity of salty snacks. The numbers were from the previous year, 2011, during which $4.4 billion worth of salty snacks were sold. We’re talking about potato chips, which always come out on top, and pretzels, corn chips, puffed cheesey things, pre-popped popcorn, etc.

These snack items remain popular for many reasons. For instance, they survive well in vending machines. Since they don’t contain much actual food, they don’t go stale for eons. Also, people can feel adventurous and sophisticated about sampling the huge range of exotic flavors that are now available.

An odd reason that the reporter identified was the trend toward gluten avoidance. During the time period covered by the sales numbers, gluten was the fashionable new bogeyman of ingredients. Fortunately, Frito-Lay was able to advertise almost 200 of its products as gluten-free. That’s why Cheetos are so good for you!

Speaking of Cheetos, contrast that factoid with the story related by The New York Times investigative reporter Michael Moss, who paid a visit to a food scientist. For his food industry collegues, Steven Witherly authored a book titled, Why Humans Like Junk Food, so he definitely qualifies as an expert.

Here is what Moss says about the encounter:

I brought him two shopping bags filled with a variety of chips to taste. He zeroed right in on the Cheetos. ‘This,’ Witherly said, ‘is one of the most marvelously constructed foods on the planet, in terms of pure pleasure.’ He ticked off a dozen attributes of the Cheetos that make the brain say more. But the one he focused on most was the puff’s uncanny ability to melt in the mouth. ‘It’s called vanishing caloric density,’ Witherly said. ‘If something melts down quickly, your brain thinks that there’s no calories in it… [Y]ou can just keep eating it forever.’

When Moss was researching his own book, Salt Sugar Fat, the average American’s consumption of chips and similar snacks made of salt and crunch was said to be 12 pounds a year (which doesn’t sound like much, actually. Only a pound a month.) Of the potato chips alone, Americans are said by other writers to consume north of a billion pounds per year, but the original source of that figure is hard to track down.

But potato chips are the champion of human weight gain causality. Moss says:

The coating of salt, the fat content that rewards the brain with instant feelings of pleasure, the sugar that exists not as an additive but in the starch of the potato itself — all of this combines to make it the perfect addictive food. ‘The starch is readily absorbed,’ Eric Rimm, an associate professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health […] told me. ‘More quickly even than a similar amount of sugar. The starch, in turn, causes the glucose levels in the blood to spike’ — which can result in a craving for more.

Of course, the same goes for other kinds of chips too. The language of food engineers is all about mouth feel, sensory-specific satiety, and other esoteric terms that add up to widespread popularity. Here is a chilling fact about salty snacks, spotlighted by Tracy Carneal:

Sales for the category […] showed the highest growth of all categories excluding tobacco, packaged beverages and alcoholic beverages.

Of course, salty snacks are not the only obesity villain, nor the only hyper-engineered, hyper-palatable variety of junk food. Those food engineers are busy, busy, busy inventing new ways to hook customers. Concerning a 135-page report provided to a soda manufacturer by a consultant, one last quotation from Michael Moss:

Cadbury wanted its new flavor to have cherry and vanilla on top of the basic Dr Pepper taste… Finding the bliss point required the preparation of 61 subtly distinct formulas — 31 for the regular version and 30 for diet. The formulas were then subjected to 3,904 tastings organized in Los Angeles, Dallas, Chicago and Philadelphia.

Imagine what a world it would be if so much energy could be channeled into, for instance, ending childhood obesity. But the news isn’t all bad. Moss provides the occasional uplifting anecdote. For instance, there was Jeffrey Dunn, a gung-ho Coca-Cola executive whose only goal in life was to convince soda drinkers to drink even more soda. Dunn visited some South American slums, observed the damage caused by sugar-sweetened beverages, changed his philosophy, and was fired by the corporation.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Category Close Up: Salty Snacks Far From Stale,” nacsonline.com, 08/2012
Source: “The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food,” The New York Times, 02/24/13
Image by Michelle Dubrawsky.

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