How Processed Foods Are Expertly Engineered To Fool Us

Food manufacturers expertly engineer processed foods to be irresistible rather than nutritious; and highly profitable rather than healthy. About every 2 weeks, our taste buds renew. The best part of this remarkable regenerative process is that we can change how we experience flavors and become healthier.
There’s a galvanizing line in a popular 70’s song by Helen Reddy, which you may remember:
“…and I know too much to go back an’ pretend.” 
Who hasn’t experienced the kind of power and resolve expressed in these lyrics?

New Information Can Lead to Different Decisions

This kind of knowledge is often both burdensome and freeing. And unless we choose denial overdetermination, Aha moments like these usually lead to meaningful growth and significant change.
Heightened awareness evolves over time, and has a ripple effect which results in making different choices and decisions.
I remember feeling just like that line in the Helen Reddy song once I learned more about processed foods. Food manufacturers expertly engineer processed foods to be irresistible rather than nutritious; and highly profitable rather than healthy.
I didn’t think much about junk food vs. optimal nutrition until I was older. After all, I lived on Big Macs, Cokes and large fries all through grad school for my Masters in Gerontology. Still, I was chagrined at the lengths to which giant food companies go to achieve their desired results. And I wanted to know more.

If It’s Going To Be, It’s Up To Me

Do you believe in the beauty of freedom and responsibility, as well as the benefits and consequences inextricably tied to our choices? I do.

Which is why it was off-putting when I’d hear a pitch that claimed, “If you are overweight, it is not your fault.” Their soft approach made me wonder what they were selling and how they justified that statement.

Well, I now have a different take on that. Because there are powerful forces at work which seek to appeal to various human impulses and influence us based on how we are wired. It is a process engineered to manipulate us in ways we are unaware. Thus, we are susceptible and less at fault than it might seem.

It’s Not Crazy When Someone Really Is Out To Get You

In his Best Selling book, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, Pulitzer Prize-winning American journalist Michael Moss, goes into great detail about how the food industry tries to capitalize on developments in neuroscience in order to engineer foods which titillate our taste buds and stimulate our brains.
This brief video gives an excellent and compelling overview:
In an April 2005 article in the Guardian, David Adam, science correspondent, wrote about some interesting findings. Unilever (a multinational food manufacturer of major brands including Ben & Jerry’s, Best Foods, Lipton, Colman’s, Knorr, Klondike, Popsicle, and Pure Leaf) employed a neuroscientist for over a decade, to research brain activity and engineer foods which capitalized on his research. In the article, “How Ice Cream Tickles Your Brain,” it explains how “Just one spoonful lights up the happy zones of the brain in clinical trials.”
  1. The bliss point for sugar
  2. The flavor burst for salt

Part of what makes finding this just right combination is based on two important physiological responses:  Sensory Specific Satiety, and Vanishing Caloric Density.

Sensory-Specific Satiety 

Once we reach a certain point while eating, the feeling of satisfaction triggers our brain that it’s time to stop. This also happens if a particular food has an overriding flavor that is very appealing at the outset. The very flavors that have this immediate appeal also get tiresome quickly. Known as Sensory Specific Satiety, it is something which manufacturers want to avoid. Companies work hard to ensure flavors are well blended and that no one flavor is too dominant.

Vanishing Caloric Density

Vanishing Caloric Density relates to foods that have a dissolve in your mouth effect. The experience tells the brain that the food just disappeared. This, in turn, signals that the calories have vanished along with it. Therefore, we can just keep eating. Heavily processed foods which contain a lot of air and salt achieve this very effectively.

The goal, whether sweet or savory, creamy or crunchy, is to engineer foods so that they stimulate our “bliss point.” This will keep us eating and buying, buying and eating.

Why are Processed Foods Bad?

Companies engineer highly processed foods to be able to sit on store and pantry shelves for months at a time. Their focus is not on nutritional value. Their focus is on:

  • preservatives
  • flavor enhancers (usually artificial)
  • attractive, colorful cardboard boxes and
  • sleek plastic packaging

How Do Taste Buds Work?

Our taste buds are remarkable receptors, and they indicate to our brain what we’re tasting in our mouths. They identify and communicate specific chemicals in foods, and analyze the overall flavor profile. Our taste buds then relay signals to our brain indicating this.

Taste buds can identify five types of taste:

  • sweetTaste Bud Areas on the Tongue
  • salty
  • sour
  • bitter
  • savory (also known as umami)

When we eat a lot of salty foods or a lot of sugar, we get to the point where we want our foods even saltier or sweeter. We acclimate and then increase our intake.

Food manufacturers often put salt on the outside of the food so that it is the first taste we perceive.

It can be especially challenging when we decide to change our eating habits and switch from heavily processed foods to cleaner, healthier ones. We may not experience that artificially engineered flavor burst with fresher, healthier foods right away. Especially if we have been eating a lot of processed foods recently. But that is quite alright.

Some Really Good News

The really good news is that just like other cells in our body, our taste buds die and regenerate. This happens about every two weeks. After age 40 or so, our taste buds begin to grow back more slowly, and not everyone that dies will be replaced (meaning that as we age, we have fewer taste buds.)

The best part of this remarkable regenerative process is that we can change how we experience flavors.

A Personal Experience

For most of my life, I’ve eaten lots of carbohydrates, and lots of honey and refined sugar. Then I started paying more attention to what I was eating, including reading labels. It is remarkable how many boxes, cartons, cans, and packages have sugar in their ingredient list. Even things that you would not imagine contain sugar. And many have so much salt.
Although I’ve been eating mostly organic for years, I was still consuming plenty of carbohydrates. I simply made the switch to organic breads and crackers, and sweets. When I significantly reduced my overall carb intake it was a challenge. After about two weeks I noticed a dramatic shift in the way my food tasted. Now that I avoid refined sugar, it’s intriguing just how sweet most vegetables taste.

The Heart of the Matter

The point is we can learn, change, grow and renew. And our bodies can do so with us. Our minds, bodies, and spirits are regenerative.
 I experienced a seismic shift in my thinking. I crossed a nutritional Rubicon. Many others have and are making a switch, too.
As Helen Reddy put it so well, we know too much to go back [to eating that way] and pretend [that it’s O.K.]  Changing what and how we eat is a process, and like anything worthwhile, it takes commitment, time, and effort.
We believe in embracing a healthier lifestyle step by step, beginning wherever we are and simply continuing to advance in different areas of our lives. It is such a wonderful experience to think of food as fuel instead of merely for fun, comfort, companionship, or entertainment.
Once we start passing on foods filled with empty calories and opt for those packed with nutrients, our bodies begin to function as the beautiful creations they are. As we begin thinking of food as fuel, we look at what we’re eating very differently. We make the decision to start eating foods for the body we want, instead of the one we have.

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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. There is a organic grocery store that opened up a few months ago about twenty minute walk from my place . I love shopping there. The prices are reasonable as long as you stay away from the convenience/snack foods
    Even with organic food if you buy chips, popcorn and other snack food they are still addictive.

    1. Thank you for your insightful comments, Susan. It is wonderful that you have a grocery store offering organic foods within walking distance of home! And we know what you mean about even organic snack foods being addictive. I used to eat a lot of organic crackers. That is one of the reasons I wanted to go Keto. It has been and continues to be, a remarkable experience. Be well and thanks for your support.

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