FEB, 2020

Bliss point. We’ve all been there.

It was about 6 years ago when I picked up Michael Moss’ book – Salt, Sugar Fat – How The Food Giants Hooked Us for the first time.  I was stunned.  I knew food scientists exist. I knew what their role was. But I did not know that is the lengths that behavioural scientist went too, to identify the bliss point of a product.  It was amazing.

In this document from the archives of the industry documents library, Dr McBride from Monell indicated that nutrition is not the first thing on people’s mind when they choose their food. It’s the taste, the flavour, the sensory satisfaction.  “Humans like sweetness, but how much sweetness? For all ingredients in food and drink, there is an optimum concentration at which the sensory pleasure is maximal. This optimum level is called the bliss point.”

He goes on to say that the bliss point is a powerful phenomenon and dictates what we eat, and drink more than we realise.  “Why do we insist on soft drinks and beer being cold?  There is no nutritional reason for this.”

What is the bliss point?

The bliss point of food is the point where food reaches a level of being as delicious as possible.  Yet, it should not make you so satiated that you don’t want more.   

The bliss point is a ratio of 3 nutrients our body will always seek out:  fat, sugar and salt. These 3 nutrients trigger our taste buds in our mouth, right through to our gut, make our mouths water so that you crave them, even if you only think about it.  “Mouth feel” is a term used to describe the perfect “crunch” of a chip, for example, that will keep a person eating.

Where does the bliss point come from?

The bliss point is something that was developed by psychologist and market researches Howard Moskowitz. After he graduated, one of his first projects was to ensure the U.S. Army soldiers eat their rations.  It was a well-known fact that army soldiers would get tired of their ready-to-eat meals and would toss it when they didn’t want it.  This could potentially cause them not to eat enough.

And so, Moskowitz started his extensive work his done in the field of helping companies find the bliss point for their new products.

One very well-known example of bliss point research is the famous Dr. Pepper soda. When they were working on the formula for a new flavour, the company went through 61 formulas and 4000 tasting events after they came up with the perfect formulation.  The result?  Cherry Vanilla Dr. Pepper. One of the companies most successful products ever to hit the supermarkets. And, it flew off the shelves.

“As I talked to nutritionists, I realized that the problem was not that the industry engineered ‘bliss points’ for soda,” Moss said.

“It’s that they marched around the grocery store adding sugar to products that didn’t used to be sweet. Bread now has sugar in it. Some yogurts have as much sugar as a serving of ice cream. What this does is create an expectancy in us that everything should be sweet, so when you drag your kids to the produce aisle … that’s why you have a rebellion on your hands.”  

And there’s a name for that too! Pester Power.

Who is Monell?

Monell is a Chemical Senses Center and is a non-profit independent scientific institute located in Philadelphia. They conducts and publishes interdisciplinary basic research on taste and smell. I was curious as to whether they are in fact an independent research entity and found their list of their current corporate sponsors.  The list includes familiar names like:

Ajinomoto Co., Inc. – a Japanese food and biotechnology corporation which produces seasonings, cooking oils, frozen foods, beverage, sweeteners, amino-acids and pharmaceuticals.
Campbell Soup Company – an American processed food and snack company
The Coca-Cola Company – Global manufacturer and retailer of non-alcoholic beverage concentrates and syrups
Diageo, plc – British Multinational alcoholic beverages company
Google – well, no introduction needed
Japan Tobacco Inc. – cigarette manufacturing company
Kerryfood company in Ireland
Kraft Heinz Co.- American food company
Maeil Dairies Co., Ltd.- Manufactures and market dairy products
McCormick & Company, Inc. – an American food company that manufactures, markets, and distributes spices, seasoning mixes, condiments, and other flavouring products for the industrial, restaurant, institutional, and home markets
Mondelēz International – American multinational confectionery, food, and beverage holding company based in Deerfield, Illinois
PepsiCo – American multinational food, snack, and beverage corporation
Pfizer, Inc. – an American multinational pharmaceutical corporation
Procter & Gamble –  an American multinational consumer goods corporation
Reckitt Benckiser (RB) – a British multinational consumer goods company
Royal DSMa Dutch multinational active in the fields of health, nutrition and materials
Suntory Holdings Ltd. – a Japanese brewing and distilling company group
Tate & Lyle – a British-headquartered, global supplier of food and beverage ingredients to industrial markets.
Unilever Research & Development – a British-Dutch transnational consumer goods company
Wm. Wrigley Jr. Company – an American chewing gum company
Zensho Holdings Co. Ltd. – a Japanese holding company which owns several restaurant chains in Japan

I cannot comment on how independent the research is and whether there are any sponsorship bias.  Maybe this will be investigated one day. In the meantime, it’s probably not a bad idea to keep an eye on their publications for now.  Although I have no doubt that they are producing some amazing research. 

Let’s get back to the bliss point.

How does the bliss point Affects me?

The more we consume something that triggers the reward centre of the brain, the more used to it we get, and the more we want it.  And we know that the sweeter the food industry make its food, the sweeter we like it to be.  So, the bliss point is really the point when something hits your tongue, it fires off signals in your brain. There is always an optimal concentration of sugar, salt and/or fat in a product at which the sensory pleasure is maximal. 

So, the only goal for companies is to make sure their products hit that sweet spot every single time. That is what sells. 

According to Monell’s director, Gary Beauchamp at the time Moss wrote this book, he presented that children develop a taste for slat as early as four or five months.  However, their liking for sweet appears already to be in place the moment they are born. 

The reason we like the sugar and the highly refined processed food, is because they bring immediate pleasure. 

And as a researcher at Monell so accurately described to Moss – 

“…it’s not that food companies are teaching children to like sweetness; rather, they are teaching children what food should taste like.”

What Can you Do?

The most obvious would be is to look for sugars in food.  But this can be a daunting task for most, since sugar comes in different shapes and forms – over 60 to be exact.  Food companies have become increasingly clever on how they want to reach the bliss point without causing alarm to the consumer.  It’s after all the consumer that ensures the sale of the product.

I recently did this little experiment [CLICK HERE TO WATCH THE VIDEO] with a cereal who were advertising that their portions has less than 2 teaspoons of sugar. I bought the cereal, went home and weighed a portion – which was supposedly to be 30g.  Then I weighed a REAL portion. What kids REALLY eat. And you will be shocked what I’ve found.

We must learn to outsmart the food companies. You can only do that by educating yourself.  Just because something is common, doesn’t mean it’s acceptable.

Here are a few tips that might help you on your next grocery trip:

  1. Look for the sugar. It can be difficult especially when companies are finding smarter ways to sneak more sugar into food. Not sure what to look for? Look for anything that end in the word ‘-ose’, contains the word ‘cain’, ‘corn’ and ‘syrup’.  By reducing the sugar, you reset your taste buds and become more sensitive to the sweetness of sugar.
  1. Cook with herbs and spices – but be aware, many herbs and spices also contains loads of sugar. Look for sugar-free/wheat-free options.  You’ll be surprised at what you can come up with during dinner time if you make herbs and spices your best friends.
  1. The foods on the middle of the grocery shelves, tend to be the foods that has a higher sugar content. Let’s take the cereal aisle. You will find food lower in sugar either on top of the cereal shelf, or at the very bottom. There is a reason why they put the not so healthy stuff at a child’s eye-height. The same goes for condiments. The healthier stuff tend to be at the very top, or at the very bottom.
  1. Make most of your food at home. At least you can control the amount of sugar if it’s in your own kitchen.  It might not necessary be perfect, but it’s better than not being in control at all.
  1. Weight and health problems have in the recent years been contributed to the high amount of sugar we consume.

It’s a tough world we live it. While we’re trying our best to eat healthy and become more knowledgeable about what ends up in our food, companies become cleverer to ensure they re-engineer products that will fly off the shelves.

The enterprise of food manufacturing and marketing is all about sales. They know the average person doesn’t pick a product off the shelve based on the nutritional value but based on how the product taste and will make them feel.

It remains our responsibility to protect ourselves and our children’s health.

And we need to become better at it.