Pringles Chips

What Exactly Are Hyper-Palatable Foods?

Once you pop, you can’t stop! This tagline for the launch of Pringles chips captures the essence of dietary fears about hyper-palatable foods. Does hyper-palatability drive the risk of obesity linked to ultra-processed foods? Sometimes policy makers give this supposition, though unproven, the status of a fact. But it needs more study. And if we’re going to study it, we need a solid definition. With a new paper in Obesity, Tera Fazzino and colleagues propose such a definition.

On top of that, they tell us that hyper-palatable foods make up roughly 62 percent of the U.S. food supply.

Sugar, Salt, Fat, and Carbs

Fazzino explains the gap she wanted to fill:

Multiple documentaries have pointed out that food companies have very well-designed formulas for these types of foods to make them palatable and essentially enhance consumption. But these definitions are virtually unknown to the scientific community, which is a major limitation. If there’s no standardized definition, we can’t compare across studies — we’ve just typically used descriptive definitions like “sweets,” “desserts,” and “fast foods.”

She and her colleagues analyzed the U.S. food supply using the USDA’s Food and Nutrient Database for Dietary Studies (FNDDS). They also reviewed scientific literature to identify the most common descriptive definitions for hyper-palatable foods. She found three combinations that most often defined these foods. First was food with more than 25 percent of calories from fat plus more than 0.30 percent sodium. Next was food with more than 20 percent of calories from fat and more than 20 percent of calories from sugar. The final group was foods with more than 40 percent of calories from carbs and more than 0.20 percent socium.

In other words, she found three different combinations of sugar (or carbs), salt, and fat that can define hyper-palatable foods.

Many Questions Remain

The abundance of highly palatable foods can be both a blessing and a curse. We have not entirely figured it out. Reflecting on concerns about highly processed and palatable foods, Professor Jennie Brand-Miller offers words of caution:

Fifty years ago when I started food science as my first degree, the world was short of food and millions were starving. The food industry rose to the challenge and succeeded in making safe, tasty and cheap food. Now they are accused of making food too tempting. Our grandmothers did the same.

I’m glad these “experts” were not around when cooking was first invented, or when herbs and spices were brought to the West by Genghis Khan, or when the first alcoholic beverage was bottled.

Having a more objective definition of hyper-palatable foods is helpful. It may turn out to be a robust tool. Or it may need much refinement. Michael Moss talks confidently about bliss points to promote the idea that the food industry has hooked us. He and many others have woven some reasonable suppostions into a compelling story.

But a compelling story is not the same thing as compelling science. And the science of hyper-palatable foods is incomplete.

Click here for the study by Fazzino et al and here for further perspective.

Pringles, photograph © TheDeliciousLife / flickr

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November 11, 2019

One Response to “What Exactly Are Hyper-Palatable Foods?”

  1. November 12, 2019 at 6:29 am, Schultz said:

    More compelling: what is the x point (economic “X”
    crosses nutritional “Y”) of hyper palatable and highly profitable.