Just finished reading Michael Moss’ “Salt, Sugar, Fat” recently. Fascinating book, that.
It’s basically a story of people doing what they found themselves having an interest in and getting hired for: to understand the appeal of foods and create better food products.
“Better,” however, as in “more attractive to the consumer in both convenience and appeal, therefore selling more, and preferably costing less in the production, and thus making higher profits.”
The highway to that appeal are things like an attractive mouth feel that keeps one coming back for more, the bliss point of just enough sweetness to be highly appealing but not so sweet as to be cloying, a flavor profile that is both excitingly attractive and bland enough that there’s no desensitization to it.
Unfortunately, the way to achieve this is by employing the eponymous substances of the book’s title – salt, sugar, and fat.
A point that was somewhat hidden in all its obviousness: It all works because the human (and not just the human, probably) body has developed so as to like eating what it needs and what has pretty much always been in rather short supply – things like the same salt, sugar, and fat.
Bitter substances, for example, are a totally different story. They can be good for us and we can learn to like them, but our natural tendency with things like bitter melon, coffee, beer (or the vast number of “bitter pills” in traditional medicine) is to spit them out. Just try feeding them to a baby…
It is here that we find an absolutely fascinating, but all too often overlooked, aspect of our getting “at home in” our bodies and senses:
As bodies, we are at home in this world.
As bodies, we know what’s needed for our continuing existence and functioning.
Perhaps, even the weird food choices of children during certain phases of their development are rather less strange and more intelligent – bodies, knowing whether they need more sweet (i.e. sugar) or more meaty (protein) or sour (i.e., when natural, vitamins). Or simply trying to avoid anything and everything that’s unknown and might therefore be dangerous.
Either way, that home is not the environment of ubiquitous food with extreme amounts of fats and sugar, engineered for maximum appeal, abundant and advertised all-around and always.
It is phases of abundance and diversity, followed by many a time of (relative or absolute) scarcity.
It is getting enough nutrition from whatever is (or can be made) available best, whether by hunting, gathering, farming or herding (as well as trading).
It is scraping by enough to reproduce if conditions are bad, but it is also having learned what combinations make for sufficient reproductive success (and possibly, but not necessarily, health and longer lives).
In that latter context, it is also learning to eat in certain ways that (seem to) have proven good, and thus acquiring certain tastes – but it’s not only being pulled along by our most fundamental food preferences.
This may easily be the biggest problem we currently face when it comes to eating:
The onslaught of processed “foods” with their engineered maximum appeal hijacks what we bodily, from birth, “know” to be good in a food and makes us want ever more – even more so when the foods are also designed to not let the body notice that there have been enough e.g. calories ingested already. (And in the case of fat, at least when it is hidden in a “food,” there apparently is no limit; in soft drinks, for example, the sugar is liked but also goes quite unnoticed, hardly registering in terms of a body ever getting to feel full – the carbonation has more of that effect.)
Growing up on such fare, we learn to recognize these characteristics, along with the aromas and flavors employed, as the signs of the normal food we like. “Frozen pizza and instant TV dinner, just like momma made.”
Natural body intelligence, the way we bodies know what’s good/necessary, and traditional food intelligence, the learning of what should be eaten “because it’s good for you” even if (at first) you don’t much like the flavor, never gets a chance to develop appropriately.
(And there, it’s already been somewhat risky, too, thanks to the changes in ways of life, from needing to get enough calories and nutrition to getting only too many calories – but not micronutrients – only too easily.)
Fortunately, we are not just pulled along by our instincts and shaped by our childhood learning.
We can understand that foods we recognize as foods or as ingredients are probably better for us than “foods” with long lists of ingredients we can’t recognize (even or especially if they promise more), use that as a guideline for our shopping, end up eating better, and learn to like this way of eating.