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Curious Cook: A modern food story – Part 1

Curious Cook: A modern food story – Part 1

A fortnight ago, there was an antique car gathering in the village. Most of the cars were from before 1940 so there were many interesting vehicles rollicking noisily around the place. Although fascinating, the antique vehicles do not have safety features, no air conditioning, require special blending of liquid lead into their fuels and they break down a lot (a few were already on recovery trailers). So they made me appre­ciate the security, comfort, efficien­cy and reliability of modern cars.

Another observation is my dog barks and attacks the television every time he sees another animal on it. While mildly irritating, it does reflect the quality of contemporary video devices – my dog simply cannot distinguish between real animals and images on the television.

These are, of course, analogies to begin a discussion about modern food. Over the years, we have considerably improved food-processing systems and standards to ensure that present-day food is enormously safer for consumption, more wholesome/tasty and certainly much more convenient. And my dog is a metaphor for how we are fooled by foods that are attractive and tasty even though they have little to do with real food and often less with nutrition.

Most sugary snacks and fizzy drinks are examples that spring to mind – but the story gets even stranger when investigating how modern society got hooked on bad nutrition in the first place.

Hooked on food?

After the billions spent by food companies over decades to investigate human food preferences, one would think it easy to conjure up formulations and recipes which people simply cannot resist. After all, the physiological factors which control enjoyment of food are well-known, at least, in the food science world, and seven relevant ones are noted on one of my previous columns.

As an example of how these factors are used, a commonly-used technique is Vanishing Calorific Density (VCD), which is closely linked to taste and texture hedonics. VCD applies to foods that simply melt very quickly in the mouth, like prawn crackers, cheese puffs or similar snacks. It appears that when food disappears very quickly in the mouth, the brain does not register the calories eaten and one can therefore eat a mountain of such food before satiety, regardless of the fat/calories ingested. This is why many snacks have light, crispy, aerated textures.

Snacks like potato chips disappear very quickly in the mouth and the brain does not register the calories eaten, regardless of the fat/calories ingested. – Bloomberg

But it does not always work – it is not that simple. Late last century, the US Army had an unusual problem with its food rations for soldiers. Although the meals were designed by food scientists to be supremely tasty, soldiers quickly got tired of their rations and threw them away, risking being short of energy in combat situations.

A mathematician, Howard Moskowitz, investigated this problem and found an odd contradiction with the desirability of very tasty food, which became known as “sensory-specific satiety”. This is the reason people eat comparatively much more bland staples such as bread, potatoes, rice, etc, than great flavoursome food.

Moskowitz determined that big, strong, tasty flavours tend to over-stimulate the brain, which responds by suppressing the desire to eat more of the same food. However, mixing in relatively bland staples tend to mitigate brain over-stimulation due to tasty food, delivering more harmonious sensory signals to the brain. So now you know why you cannot eat satay or sausages (and nothing else) a few days in a row – your brain will simply depress your desire for the same food so much that you will either stop eating or have to change your food.

As an aside, there seems to be an upsurge in people adopting the Carnivore Diet.

The rules of this diet are simple: Eat only meat, fish, eggs only, the fattier the better – and eat no carbohydrates, fruits or vegetables. This regime is a little bizarre as humans evolved as omnivores, so it does not make sense from an evolutionary point of view. However, as with all diet plans, there are various anecdotal claims of the usual wonderful benefits. I mention this diet only because it is related to another point about modern diets later. But overall, I think this diet in the long-term is outlandish, especially in terms of the risks to the human gastrointestinal microbiota, which you can review on this previous post.

Product optimisation

But returning to the subject of modern foods, it is interesting to understand what makes a hit consumer food item since we now know it is not only about the best taste. This is where a curious blend of mathematics and food science work together in a rigorous and precise process called “product optimisation”.

At its most basic level, it is a little similar to cooking a few variants of a dish and asking members of your family which one they like the most. But the similarities end there. With product optimisation, several dozen (or more) variations of the dish would be tested across several hundred (or thousands) of potential consumers, delineated by age, sex, background, employment, number of children, housing, income, etc. And then they may be tested again, sometimes several times.

The columnist’s dog simply cannot distinguish between real animals and images on the television as video technology has advanced considerably. – CHRIS CHAN

Preference profiles based on the results of the taste tests would be compiled to derive sensitivity measures against the sample foods; ie, which variants are generally preferred by everyone overall and which ones are preferred specifically by people with, say, higher income or children or in better housing, etc.

The output is usually an extensive document which can accurately profile the preferences of various groups of people. This information is used in many ways.

At the primary level, it is used to determine the “bliss point” of a product, which is the point where consumers will consume the product over and over again. This bliss point may stretch across several variants of the product – in this case, the food producer will choose the lowest-cost option.

For example, during testing of Cherry Vanilla Dr Pepper, it was found consumers had the same maximum positive reaction to both a particular test drink and a slightly sweeter version that used marginally less (by just microlitres) of the expensive flavouring. Using the cheaper formula saved Cadbury many, many millions without losing any sales.

After that, marketing and psychology skills are applied to determine the best ways to sell the product. If product optimisation determined that older people are the most likely customers, the advertising may be geared to daytime television with matured actors as presenters. The packaging may also use larger, easily-readable fonts, with easy package opening options. For other products, there may be additional tests and analytics for desirability factors such as seasonal, luxury, lifestyle, etc.

In short, the level of detail and preparatory work required is enormous for the launch of a modern consumer food item. And this is why many consumers fall for mass-marketed food products – people would be behaving abnormally if they did not like them.

The next part is about modern food in the home and restaurants.

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