Editor’s Note: In 2020 (and 2021), there have been a lot of unanswered questions about life and living, so in our partnership with the Chemical Engineering Service Learning Class at Tulane University, taught by Dr. Julie Albert, we made it our aim to find questions we could answer. The series is called “Dear Big Chem-EZ” (think “Dear Abbey” but with less about “Why does my partner ignore me?” and more about “Can I actually drink my tap water?” and “What’s that smell outside my house?”).
You can look for new pieces every day this week and next because we love science, we love answers, and we love potato chips (but what’s in them?)! Let’s take a look! If you have questions you’d like answered, send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear Big Chem-EZ,
I have heard that there are about 6 potatoes in a bag of potato chips. I know for a fact that I could never eat that many potatoes in one sitting, but I can easily eat an entire bag of chips. How is that possible?
For decades, large corporations have worked to improve their products and keep you, the consumer, coming back for more. But how exactly does a company keep you eating their product and buying more? It’s not like they can force you to eat their chips.
What they can do, however, is modify their product to reach the so-called “bliss point,” a formulation that creates maximum enjoyment and satisfaction so that you become hooked on their product. The bliss point depends on a holy trinity of sorts, but we’re not talking onions, bell peppers and celery here. This is the holy trinity of processed food: salt, sugar and fat. Each year, companies pour millions of dollars into research aimed at finding the perfect balance of salt, sugar, and fat in their products to woo your taste buds and leave you craving more.
Aside from just meeting the bliss point of taste, there are plenty of other ways for a company to trick you into eating more. For example, a study funded by Unilever found that potato chips were perceived as being crispier and fresher when the overall crunching sound made when eating the chips was louder. Another study conducted by Nestle Research Center focused on studying the architecture of the mouth so that Nestle could shape their chocolates to the geometry of the mouth to increase their melt-in-mouth quality while reserving enough space for the chocolate aroma to enhance the sensory experience.
So, imagine a delicious bag of chips engineered to have a loud crunch at first and then melt away in your mouth as you eat them. Your average baked potato certainly doesn’t do that, so it’s no wonder you can eat the whole bag of chips but not several potatoes. In fact, a study by the National Institutes of Health in 2019 found that people eating a diet of mostly processed foods, like potato chips, ate about 500 calories more per day than when they ate mostly unprocessed foods. You can eat the entire bag of chips because it was literally engineered to make you eat the whole thing and then buy some more!
“Chocolate Bar.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 19 Oct. 2020, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chocolate_bar.
Crowe, Kelly. “Food Cravings Engineered by Industry | CBC News.” CBCnews, CBC/Radio Canada, 7 Mar. 2013, www.cbc.ca/news/health/food-cravings-engineered-by-industry-1.1395225.
“NIH Study Finds Heavily Processed Foods Cause Overeating and Weight Gain.” National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 17 June 2019, www.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/nih-study-finds-heavily-processed-foods-cause-overeating-weight-gain.
Pennell, Allison. “Why Potato Chips Taste so Damn Good and Other Truths about Processed.” TODAY.com, 27 Feb. 2013, www.today.com/health/michael-moss-salt-sugar-fat-why-potato-chips-taste-so-I524412.
Quinlivan, Mark, and The Project. “Addiction Specialist Explains Why You Can’t Say No to Free Food at Work.” Newshub, 6 Aug. 2019, www.newshub.co.nz/home/lifestyle/2019/08/addiction-specialist-explains-why-you-can-t-say-no-to-free-food-at-work.html.