Are food cravings genuine, or merely an acquired habit? Could food companies have played a part in the kinds of cravings we have? 

In fact, it may just be a self-reinforcing loop: humans develop habits from consuming a certain type of food and continue seeking out these foods, and companies keep trying to meet their tastes and reinforce these cravings.

‘Bliss point’ – the ultimate goal of food companies

According to Howard Moskowitz, a Harvard-trained experimental psychologist who pioneered the concept and their role in product development when he started refining army rations in 1971, the ‘bliss point’ of a food is the product formulation that is most palatable to consumers.

Companies perform this search systematically, coming up with systematic variations of the types and amounts of ingredients and/or seasonings in the same food product. There may be different bliss points for one food, for example in coffee – some like strong 'dark roast (coffee) brews' while others prefer regular or weaker 'lighter brews.'

It is human nature to gravitate towards the sweet and savoury, and gradually, bliss points have been engineered even for products that are traditionally not sweet. Consumers no longer know natural sweetness.

"Each generation of food marketers wants to increase acceptance, and the easiest way to do this for many foods is to add sugar," Moskowitz said. Yet, this takes consumers’ food preferences on a dangerous downward spiral - "You add just a little bit each time, so over the course of a decade, there's a bigger change," he stated.

Sensory-specific satiety: Why we overeat at buffets

There is another aspect to bliss point that companies must consider– when the consumer feels satiated from eating a certain food. This occurs due to sensory specific satiety. In essence, the consumer experiences a temporary decline in pleasure derived from consuming a certain food, and consequently has his appetite renewed when he is exposed to a new flavour or food.

To get around this, companies crank up the taste experience provided, so that even if the level of sensory satisfaction drops, it remains at a level high enough that the desire to consume will still hold strong until the consumer finishes the product (or even after, leading to second helpings). This may cause the consumer to eat more than they should.

This is commonly done by having a variety of ingredients in one food product to ensure texture and flavour variety, and may explain why people can claim to be full but still have room for dessert, which presents a wholly different set of tastes.

Sensory specific satiety may have been a self-protective evolutionary mechanism to avoid sensory overload, according to Civille, of Sensory Spectrum. "In the case of food, adaptation results in fullness."

Taking control of eating habits

The way food products are designed may be great for companies’ profits, but detrimental to consumers’ health, especially for children, who are already hard-wired to prefer sweetness - they become highly unlikely to consume much nutrition-laden food like broccoli and tomatoes, which contain other tastes like bitter and sour. This could lead to a whole host of health issues like obesity and malnutrition.

With awareness, however, it is possible to take charge of your own eating habits and help patients do the same for themselves, too. Here are eight tips to do so.

1. Go for the protein

Protein has a more satiating effect than fat or carbohydrates. Studies have also shown that upping protein intake could reduce food cravings by up to 60%. Go for the seafood, dairy products and soy. 

2. Avoid extreme hunger

Hunger gives rise to food cravings – the tendency is to pick out unhealthy food when shopping for groceries. To avoid this, try having healthy snacks close at hand, such as fruits.

3. Add some fat to the diet

"You should have some fat in your diet, because fat is interesting and satiating. It holds flavour and releases the flavour in a different way than a water-based system," Civille said. Consider adding peanut butter to healthy snacks or some avocado.

4. Wean the palate

It is possible to train oneself to prefer less sweet, salty, or fatty foods, by pairing the new product with something that the consumer likes doing or eating. This makes the switch less of a chore.

5. Be mindful when eating

Examine whether the food craving arises from true hunger, or something else such as stress or boredom. Having an awareness of one’s true consumption needs helps avoid impulsive eating.

6. Divide the amount of purchases to buy in half

Make sure half of the groceries bought are healthy foods like fruits and vegetables. This can be done during shopping simply by dividing the shopping trolley in half, and reserving one half for healthy foods.

7. Plan meals

Utilise all the healthy groceries bought. By already anticipating what one is to eat, the factor of spontaneity is eliminated. This reduces temptation to alter the plan and indulge food cravings. MIMS

Read more:
Science debunks common “unhealthy” food perceptions
Veggies versus junk food: Appealing to teen’s ‘rebel mentality’ to minimise unhealthy eating
11 healthy diet habits debunked