There are three reasons Americans' love affair with snacks is growing-- along with their waistlines: the ubiquity of junk food, the ubiquity of junk food advertising and stealth food technology. People who polish off a whole bag of chips or cookies at one sitting (usually in front of TV) are often doing exactly what the product was designed to do--be addictive.
Have you noticed the overpowering something-in-the-oven smell that wafts up when you walk past a Subway? Mark Christiano, Subway's Global Baking Technologist, insists the aroma is not pumped outside to entice passers-by and adds that the bread recipe is "proprietary." But in the war for your food dollar, all tactics are clearly on the table including the way a food smells, looks, and feels in the mouth. Nothing is left up to chance.
"Food technologists" use $40,000 devices that simulate a chewing mouth to test and perfect chips, for example. "People like a chip that snaps with about four pounds of pressure per square inch," says Michael Moss, author of Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us so technologists seek "the perfect break point."
Fat is a big part of the food technology stagecraft too because it promotes crunch, creaminess and contrast, blends flavors and even lubricates mouthfuls so that people eat faster. And, speaking of fast eating, people who wolf down their food do not entirely have themselves to blame--the actual time it takes to chew food has shrunk. "In the [45 years] that I have been in the food business, we used to have foods that we chewed 15 times and 20 times and 30 times before we swallowed," says Gail Vance Civille, of the consumer research firm Sensory Spectrum. Now most foods only have to be chewed 12 times and "you're in for the next hit to get more pleasure, says Civille.
Of course sugar, salt and fat themselves can be addictive as Häagen-Dazs or Krispy Kreme junkies can attest, but food technologists have a clear equation for designing hyper-rewarding, hyper-palatable foods. They fabricate "complex formulas that pique the taste buds enough to be alluring but don't have a distinct, overriding single flavor that tells the brain to stop eating," says Moss.
Here are some foods deliberately designed to hook you at the first whiff or taste.