A BRIEF BACKSTORY
About a year or so ago I went to visit Pakistan for my brother’s wedding. I was to see my family and relatives. As a startup company, this was the first time I had the opportunity, after a year and a half of starting Ketogeek, to have my mother, brother, and relatives try out the Energy Pods we had made at Ketogeek. Because of many so-called “experts” in the health and nutrition sphere, we have lowered the sweetness of the foods to make them less palatable.
After around to tasting it with my family and relatives, it became obvious that the Energy Pod was bitter to them. However, I found it perfectly sweet while some nutrition gurus would swear it off and declare our product way too sweet.
With so many nutrition experts, gurus, scientists, vloggers, and writers of mainstream news constantly ordaining the public that tasty aka. hyperpalatable foods are one of the centerpieces of obesity and diabetes, I began to excavate the science behind these so-called “hyperpalatable” foods and voila, I couldn’t find anything substantial. Here’s the problem:
WHAT IS HYPERPALATABLE FOOD?
Hyperpalatable foods are those that have been engineered or processed to have an exceptionally appealing taste. These foods are purported to contain a high level of additives like sugar, salt, fats, and flavor enhancers that make them extremely tasty. The combination of these ingredients in hyperpalatable foods can trigger a strong response in the brain's reward system, often leading to increased consumption and, in some cases, overeating. This can contribute to unhealthy eating habits and is a factor in the rising rates of obesity and diet-related diseases
WHAT DOES IT MEAN?
The word hyperpalatable, from a socially practical standpoint, means something tastes so good that you eat a lot of it in the short term. Therein lies the first problem with the concept of hyperpalatable. Short-term increase in food intake and meal termination(satiation) doesn't reliably predict long-term food intake and feeling of fullness(satiety.) Furthermore, even appetite ratings in scientific studies are usually not perfect predictors of caloric intake either.
Additionally, taste is subjective, and the pleasure we receive from what we eat, no matter how tasty it is, declines and adapts over time. In a desert with no food, insects, and eyeballs might be the most hyperpalatable foods. Now, let's dive into the actual science and myth around hyperpalatable foods.
THE ADDICTIVE FOOD STUDY
Many online blogs cite this University of Michigan study(1) to suggest addictive-like eating. In this study, participants received a list of 35 foods and were asked to rate on a scale of 1(not at all addictive) to 7(extremely addictive.)
In this study foods like pizza(4.01), chocolate(3.73), chips(3.73), ice-cream(3.68), french fries(3.60), cheeseburger(3.51), soda(3.29), cake(3.26) and cheese(3.22) were ranked higher while foods nuts(2.47), eggs(2.18), chicken breast(2.16), pretzels(2.13), crackers(2.07), water(1.94), granola(1.93), strawberries(1.88), corn(1.87), salmon(1.84), bananas(1.77), broccoli(1.74), brown rice(1.74), apples(1.66), beans(1.63), carrots(1.60), and cucumbers(1.53) were ranked lower.
As it is clear, the study is based on preliminary self-reported measures that are prone to existing subjective biases. For instance, it's hard to imagine water being more addictive than apples but it's far easier to note that the trend of these foods has more to do with conventional norms in nutrition rather than tangible science. The study also overlooks individual differences, lumps into 'addictive-like' behavior instead of actual food addiction, and the cross-sectional study can't establish cause and effect. Meanwhile, much stronger randomized controlled trials with stronger evidence show, for instance, favorable fat loss outcomes (2) when it comes to chocolate and cocoa supplementation. In fact, at a population level Switzerland, for example, has the highest per capita chocolate intake(3) while ranking as one of the least obese countries in Europe(4).
FOOD REWARD AND ADDICTION HYPOTHESIS
Some other claims are that addictive-like behavior induces biochemical reactions that may cause people to lose control over their food consumption. This is usually attributed specifically to sometimes sugar, fat, or both(5)(6). However, it's important to distinguish food addiction, by the merits of the Yale Food Addiction Scale, which generally impacts only 5%(7) of the population and signifies that:
- Rewarding foods aren't always addictive
- Food Addiction doesn't always lead to obesity or being overweight
- Someone can be lean and addicted to food
It's also important to note that their complex carbohydrates, albeit at a slower rate, can boost serotonin levels(8), blander 'comfort foods' can also be rewarding(9) while spicy foods can trigger endorphins which can lead to mild euphoria. Additionally, personality factors such as sensation seeking and sensitivity may have a more important role in the types of foods we choose to eat(10). Meanwhile, dopamine production can occur from natural and unprocessed sources such as bananas, avocados, nuts, and seeds, and non-nutritive sources such as music, sex, physical exercise, meditation, gaming, drugs, alcohol, and creative activities. Meanwhile, protein, when broken down into amino acids, for our body also forms precursors to producing dopamine. Unprocessed natural foods high in protein would include eggs, chicken, turkey, beef, salmon, and milk.
Some claims are made about certain modern foods releasing a massive amount of feel-good chemicals compared with unprocessed foods. However, this notion is trivialized by the homeostatic adaptation to certain stimuli in our brain. In other words, repeated exposure to the same stimuli downregulates dopaminergic response to that stimuli(11).
REPEATED EXPOSURE LEADS TO HABITUATION IN PEOPLE
In a 2004 study, when matched for restraint, lean and obese women showed a similar capacity to stop eating the same food item(12). Another study noted similar habituation towards food with no influence of BMI on outcomes(13). All in all, the evidence that something can be too tasty or too rewarding is nullified by the fact that humans adapt to food stimuli. This paradoxically brings a powerful question: if we can adapt to any stimuli, could it be that bland and bitter foods with nutrient loads are more problematic than tasty ones? This fact is substantiated by the fact that in human randomized controlled trials, non-nutritive sweetened drinks(14) lead to significantly more fat loss than bland water.
THE PARADOX OF TASTY CUISINES
Another problem with the concept of hyperpalatable is that it doesn't factor in the variations of taste in global cuisines.
We know that many cuisines are tasty, such as Indian, French, Italian, Japanese, Korean, and many others but if we were to take the tastiness of foods as the sole driver of obesity then Nauru and Cook Islands take the prize for having the tastiest foods with a whopping 61% and 55% obesity rate. America comes at 36% while India comes at 5%(15). Does this mean that Pacific Island cuisines are tasty whereas Japanese cuisines are bland and tasteless due to low obesity rates of 3.5%(16)? It's also important to note that a country like Japan is far more economically industrialized than the Pacific Islands.
Though such figures come with several caveats and confounders, they can sometimes give us a reality check on how absurd we sound when dogma slowly embeds itself into "science".
IT MAKES NO EVOLUTIONARY SENSE
Pushing people to eat bitter, bland, and tasteless foods is akin to going to the buffet blinded or having your eyes gouged. We evolved our senses to recognize foods and these senses exist to incentivize healthy foods. Therefore, we should make tasty foods healthier and find pleasure in healthy foods. Masking it with a fabricated smile on Instagram or social media while promoting a bitter cleanse isn’t a long-term recipe for success.
BLISS POINT: DOES THE CONCEPT HOLD TO SCRUTINY?
Initially, it’s tempting to take Michael Moss’s book “Salt Sugar Fat”, Chris van Tulleken's "Ultra-Processed People", and Mark Schatzker's book "The Dorito Effect" at face value since anti-establishment narratives are the lowest-hanging fruit of intellectualism. Slamming buzzwords and dismissing quantitative science due to conflict of interest is the most tried and tested troupe in the realm of food politics and alarmist book writing that baffles many doctors, journalists, and individuals from the public. Let us talk about another concept hammered by food alarmists: bliss point.
Bliss point, a key feature in hyperpalatable foods, refers to the optimal combination of food, sugar, and fat in the food that maximizes deliciousness and pleasure. This engineering of food makes them hard to resist and contributes to obesity. In other words, it is a quantitative understanding of what every good traditionalist recipe developer, home cook on Thanksgiving, influencer trying to be the next Gordan Ramsay, and chef wants to create for their customers.
We covered the habituation of foods in previous sections. Our palate also adapts(17) based on frequency and level of exposure. For instance, eating saltier foods merely modifies our preference for saltier foods. Perhaps, the concept of palate adaptability also explains how countries like India, with spicy and flavorful foods, maintain only 5% obesity rates.
THE ULTIMATE HYPOCRISY: BUY MY STUFF, NOT THEIRS
Under the masquerade of "Eating a balanced diet," as a culture, the most hypocritical thing you can notice is that on this journey to seek relevance and power, the blame gets placed on tasty industrialized foods while the footer of that blog post or video involves a call to action to their meal plan or 'delicious' recipe that, when industrialized, will become the cannon fodder for a future blogger or media channel that will outright dismiss it as evil-processed-hyperpalatable-junk-food. We keep chasing this cycle of buzzwords generationally without doing the hard of creating informed consumerism, scientists who are problem solvers, and choosing complacency over seeking an innovative change for the masses.
INSIGHTS FOR BETTER MODERN PROCESSED FOODS
Within many nutrition spheres, the most complacent diet mantra always boils down to advocating eating 'whole' and 'single-ingredient' food. Meanwhile, the affiliate links say otherwise. Our modern world requires modern solutions in which shelf-stable, tasty, convenient, and healthy are all possible through smart understanding and incorporation of modern processed foods. We created the Energy Pod Framework for this purpose so that we can comprehend foods from a structural and nutritive perspective while evolving our understanding of foods and food choices. Let's work together for a better and healthier future.