The potato chip — the taste, the thing — is the perfect “bliss” for the body. Heavily engineered in food labs across the world for decades, the potato chip is the consummate blend of fat, sugar, and salt. According to Pulitzer prize-winning author, Michael Moss, most chips deliver to the human being the experience of a food “euphoria”.
A bag of potato chips doesn’t just satisfy hunger and deliver calories. The salt, sugar, and fat in a potato chip combine to make it perfectly addictive. The starch in the chips cause glucose levels to rise, which results in a craving for more.
The most perfectly engineered chips also stimulate the brain to release dopamine while we eat them. Dopamine is the same ‘feel good’ brain chemical released if you snort cocaine, play the slots, or text on the cellphone.
Over time, the brain likes getting flooded with feel-good dopamine. When you see the package in the store, or if your friend even mentions chips, the brain starts craving dopamine. It’s no coincidence that the most addictive foods are the cheapest and easiest to buy.
The euphoria is so addictive, sending pleasure pulses from our brain to the rest of our body, that Lays Potato Chips proclaimed in its famous ad in 1983, “No one can eat just one” followed by the test, “Bet you can’t eat just one”.
Lays employs a team of 500 chemists, psychologists and technicians at a research plant near Dallas for a cost of $30 million a year to create the perfect crunch, mouth feel and aroma for their products. Lays also has a $40,000 device that simulates a chewing mouth to create the perfect ‘break point’ of a chip. It turns out people like about four pounds of pressure per square inch.
As it turns out, “Cheetos” are one of the most engineered products on the planet, designed specifically to make the brain say ‘more’. The Cheetos’ ability to melt in the mouth is called ‘vanishing caloric density’. If something melts quickly, the brain thinks there’s no calories so you keep eating until you’re finished the bag. The act of eating for pleasure, without hunger and often to excess, is called “hedonic hyperphagia”.
We can’t just blame big companies like Pepsi Co, (which owns Lays), Kraft and Nestle for making us unhealthy. We’ve known for years that sugary, salty and fatty foods aren’t good for us in the quantities we consume them. If we all snacked occasionally on junk food, it wouldn’t be such a problem. But industry insiders spend a LOT of time and money to make sure you don’t just eat a little, you eat a LOT. If we are obese, we have to blame ourselves and our own controls.
Like all culture, food culture is ambiguous. It is made by man. Man, by nature, is conflicted. Food is fantastic and nutritious. It is also poisonous and deadly. We can no longer look to culture for the answer. Culture contains both lie and truth. We must discover the answers for ourselves. It is up to each of us to find our path to a healthy, satisfying and meaningful life.
Culture is the track field upon which we race. That track is filled with both land mines and beauty. In the act of running, we find the meaning.