Vanishing Caloric Density

by: Michael Shields

An in-depth look at Cheetos (“the height of food engineering”), through the eyes of Michael Moss’s latest tell-all: Sugar, Salt Fat, How the Food Giants Hooked Us……

Cheetos were invented in the 1940s by Fritos creator Charles Elmer Doolin. Doolin cooked the earliest known version of these modern miracles in the Frito Company’s Texas-based research and development kitchen. Cheetos are made of corn, fat, and something called “cheese seasoning” (Which itself is made of 11 ingredients, including canola oil and the artificial color “yellow # 6”). These “ingredients” are heated under pressure, and then extruded through a die. The texture of the snack is formed as a result of contact with hot air, causing steam in the mixture to expand and creating its characteristic puff-like composition. After oven-drying or frying1, the product is then tumbled with the desired flavor components. The process takes approximately 19 minutes and each half hour an in-house lab team inspects and taste-tests each batch. They now come in no fewer than 17 different flavors and as of 2010, Frito-Lay has 14 fried-Cheetos plants in 11 states throughout the US.

Another defining characteristic of Cheetos is: They are absolutely delicious. They are one of those foods2 that you cannot eat just one. No way, no how. With one bite they pull you in, make you yearn for more…..and this is completely by design.

Cheetos are considered within the snack-food industry to be sort of a modern marvel. According to Michael Moss, who just released an intriguing new book on the subject of junk foods entitled Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, Cheetos are regarded by insiders as the height of food engineering. A food scientist interviewed in Moss’s book describes them as: “one of the most marvelously constructed foods on the planet, in terms of pure pleasure.” A unique property of Cheetos, the one that keeps us coming back, is something known as “vanishing caloric density.” This is an item that is uniquely, and strategically, engineered to rapidly melt in your mouth3, tricking your brain into thinking that there are no calories in it and you can just keep on eating them forever4 Popcorn is another prime example of a food that excels at vanishing the caloric density.

In Salt Sugar Fat, Moss takes us inside the labs where food scientists use cutting-edge technology, and boundless amounts of time, to calculate the “bliss point”. This is the optimum amount of sugar in a product that will cause an euphoric rush, and send products flying off the shelves. He delves into the lengths these scientist go to to find this morphine-like bliss point in a soft-drink that makes its consumption positively addictive.

Moss, in this must-read, talks about the amazing role in captivating our senses of what the industry calls “mouth feel”. That’s the warm, gooey texture of cheese, or the cushiony release after you crack through the skin when you bite into fried chicken. The mouth feel of food items, especially those high in fat, are second only to the bliss point in their ability to predict how much craving a product will induce. These sensations rush to the same pleasure centers of the brain that sugar does, but fat is carrying twice as many calories, so the use of fat to amend the way an object feels in your mouth is more problematic from an obesity standpoint.

Moss discusses salt at length, the magical ingredient that these companies fall back on to solve almost any problem5.  He also talked to concerned executives who confess that they could never produce truly healthy alternatives to their products even if serious regulation became a reality.

All this is the tip of the iceberg, as Moss garnered untethered access into the labs of leading food companies to uncover numerous jaw-dropping truths6. The reason for this access is explained away easily by Moss: “When you really start meeting the people inside who work [there], there are few precious secrets. People really do love to talk about their work.” It is important to note that these executives that Moss spent time with largely do not eat their own product, or processed foods at all, as they know better. And he points out that many of these executives have come to feel really bad about their role in the availability of these types of unhealthy foods and the propagation of the obesity epidemic in our country7.

Salt Sugar Fat is a remarkable read…..and scary as hell8.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention more than one-third of U.S. adults (35.7%) are obese. Obesity-related complications include heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer9. In 2008, medical costs associated with obesity were estimated at $147 billion; the medical costs for people who are obese were $1,429 higher than those of normal weight.

These statistics are shocking, and almost unbelievable. But the problem is real and what is so disturbing, in the context of Moss’s book, is that things are poised to only get worse – as consumers are up against an industry that calculates daily how to further exploit the growing (literally) population of consumers, through state of the art, chemical manipulation of our foods.

The truth of the matter is very few of us can avoid processed foods altogether. But what we can do is demand more for ourselves, as we all deserve better. The wants of the consumers are what drive these markets, and companies will deliver on our demands because that is how they make the big bucks. Shifting preferences due in part to new information about the links between diet and health have already contributed to consumers demanding healthier foods, and with all this new information at our fingertips we can, hopefully, continue this trend. I know it’s hard to put the Cheetos down, or the Doritos, but look at it this way: The CEO’s of all the major snack food industries won’t eat their food, so maybe we shouldn’t either?10

  1. The original Crunchy Cheetos are fried. []
  2. If you can really call it that? []
  3. While still being crunchy mind you – a true feat of engineering! []
  4. Another crucial term is “sensory-specific satiety”, which is the tendency for big, distinct flavors to overwhelm the brain, which responds by depressing your desire to have more. []
  5. It is hard to talk about salt without discussing the super salt – Monosodium Glutamate. You can learn about its widespread use and dangers right: Here. []
  6. Such as Nestlé, Kraft, Nabisco, General Mills, Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola and Mars. []
  7. The former President of Coca-Cola, Jeff Dunn, has now dedicated his life to making baby carrots the next great junk food! []
  8. A particularly poignant moment occurs when Cheez Whiz’s creator laments upon finding out his brainchild no longer contains real cheese. []
  9. Some of the leading causes of preventable death. []
  10. If you don’t have time for the book, and would like to learn more about this topic take a look at the article piece Michael Moss wrote for the New York Times about the extraordinary science of junk food: Here. []

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