The Science of Taste: How Restaurants Use our Bodies Against Us!

I recently read a FASCINATING book called "The End of Overeating" by David A. Kessler, MD.  I highly recommend it!  In the book, Dr. Kessler reviews what makes some people prone to overeating.  He outlines the science behind the drive to eat when you are already full.  He then goes over how restaurants manipulate us to get us to eat more quickly and thus eat more food.

We are born preferring sweet tastes.  Even newborns "smile" when given sugar water!  But we are not just drawn to sweetness alone.  As Dr. Kessler points out, few people eat sugar straight from the packets.  Rather, we prefer mixtures of fat and sugar.  Adam Drewnowski did a study where he gave people drinks containing different ratios of milk and sugar.  Not surprisingly, the skim milk with sugar (no fat, lots of sugar) and the unsweetened cream (lots of fat, no sugar) did not get high marks.  Everybody preferred the mixture that contained lots of sugar and lots of fat.

More interesting, is that there is a "bliss point", a point where we enjoy the sugar/fat the most.  It is possible too make a food too sweet or too fatty.  We all know that too little fat/sugar is no good but scientists have shown that too much fat/sugar is also not desired.  Scientists have shown that the ideal amount of sugar in a drink is 10%.  If a drink is more than 10% sugar, it is deemed too sweet.

Eating foods high in sugar and fat makes you want to eat MORE sugar and fat.

Variety makes you eat more.  Our body has what is called "taste-specific satiety", meaning that it can become full from a certain taste but can immediately feel "hunger" if exposed to a different type of food.  This helps account for why we eat so much more at a buffet than a sit-down meal.

We become conditioned to eat high-fat, high-sugar foods.  In one study, people who did not usually snack mid-morning were given a high-fat, high-sugar snack before lunchtime for five days in a row.  For days afterwards, they craved a mid-morning snack, even though they never used to eat at that time!

When we first put a yummy food in our mouths, our taste buds send a signal to the brain that activates our body's natural opiates.  Opiates make us feel pleasure and can also relieve pain or stress and can relax us.  No wonder I want to turn to a donut whenever I feel discomfort and anxiety!

Restaurants use this science agains us!  Restaurants are in the business to sell food.  And what sells?  Fat and sugar!  So restaurants will stick fat and sugar into everything.  If you order vegetables in a restaurant, chances are they have been fried (or sauteed) in oil.

It gets worse.  In just one example from the book, a consultant/restaurant insider discusses the Southwestern Eggrolls from Chilis.

Deep-frying the tortilla drives down its water content from 40 percent to about 5 percent and replaces the rest with fat.  "The tortilla is really going to absorb a lot of fat"...

"Cooked white meat chicken, binder added, smoke flavor.  People really like smoky flavor- it's the caveman in them."

"There's green stuff in there," he said, noting the spinach.  "That makes me feel like I am eating something healthy."

He believed the chicken had been chopped and formed much like a meat loaf, with binders added, which makes those calories easier to swallow.  Ingredients that hold moisture, including autolyzed yeast extract, sodium phosphate, and soy protein concentrate, further soften the food.

I noticed that salt appeared eight times on the label and that sweeteners were there five times, in the form of corn-syrup solids, molasses, honey, brown sugar, and sugar.

"This is highly processed?" I asked.

"Absolutely, yes.  All of this has been processed such that you can wolf it down fast... chopped up and made ultrapalatable... Very appealing looking, very high pleasure in the fod, very high calorie density.  Rules out all the stuff you have to chew."

By eliminating the need to chew, modern food processing techniques allow us to eat faster.  "When you're eating these things, you've had 500, 600, 800, 900 calories before you know it," said the consultant.  "Literally before you know it."  Refined food simply melts in the mouth.

Restaurants add fat to everything!  Why?  The fat helps to lubricate the food so it absorbs saliva better and is swallowed more easily.  Fat also lingers after food is swallowed, leaving the flavor behind in your mouth.  The end result is that you eat so quickly that you don't realize how much you have consumed.  And you still have some flavor in your mouth, keeping you salivating.  So what do you do next?  You order more!

Restaurants also add lubricants and process foods to eliminate the amount of time spent chewing.  According to Gail Civille, in the past Americans typically chewed a mouthful of food twenty-five times before swallowing; now it is only about ten times.   Food processing creates a type of "adult baby food" which doesn't require much effort to eat.  Because it goes down so quickly, it easily overrides the body's signals that should signal fullness.

Did you know that most restaurant food is fried not once, but twice?  It's true!  Most chain restaurants use "individually quick-frozen foods".  These foods are partially fried in factories before they are quick-frozen and sent to the restaurant.  Once in the restaurant, they can be taken from the package (still frozen) and into the deep fryer before being served.  Very few chain restaurants cook the food from scratch.  This helps explain why a Chili's burger tastes the same in New York as it does in Nevada.  They are all made in the same factory!  Yum...  Even the vegetables and lettuce are prepared elsewhere and then either frozen or sealed in vacuum packages.

The book goes on to give lots of other examples of how restaurants manipulate food to get us to eat more quickly and thus eat more.  It also goes over lots of different food chains, including Starbucks, Cinnabon's, Pink's, McDonalds and more, revealing their techniques to make their food more appealing.    I think it is a must-read for every parent.  It definitely has made me think twice about eating out!


Joanna Dolgoff MD is a pediatrician who specializes in child and adolescent weight management. She is the creator of Dr. Dolgoff's Weigh.

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One Response to “The Science of Taste: How Restaurants Use our Bodies Against Us!”

  1. I knew food was highly processed, but I hadn’t understood the why behind it, other than assuming it had something to do with extending shelf life. Thanks for the new information!