Why potato chips are so good

I’ve been meaning to blog about Salt, Sugar, Fat, and never gotten around to it.  Here’s a really interesting interview with the author about why potato chips are so irresistible:

Here’s how it works.

It starts with salt, which sits right on the outside of the chip. Salt is the first thing that hits your saliva, and it’s the first factor that drives you to eat and perhaps overeat. Your saliva carries the salty taste through the neurological channel to the pleasure center of the brain, where it sends signals back: “Hey, this is really great stuff. Keep eating.”

The industry calls this salty allure a food’s “flavor burst,” and I was surprised to learn just how many variations on this effect there are. The industry creates different varieties of salt for different kinds of processed foods: everything from fine powders that blend easily into canned soups, to big chunky pyramid-shaped granules with flat sides that stick better to food (hollowed out on the inside for maximum contact with the saliva).

Then, of course, there’s fat. Potato chips are soaked in fat. And fat is fascinating because it’s not one of the five basic tastes that Aristotle identified way back when—it’s a feeling. Fat is the warm, gooey sensation you get when you bite into a toasty cheese sandwich—or you get just thinking about such a sandwich (if you love cheese as much as I do). There’s a nerve ending that comes down from the brain almost to the roof of the mouth that picks up the feel of fat, and the industry thus calls the allure of fat “mouthfeel.”

The presence of fat, too, gets picked up by nerve endings and races along the neurological channel to the pleasure center of the brain. Which lights up, as strongly as it lights up for sugar. There are different kinds of fats—some good—but it’s the saturated fats, which are common in processed foods, that are of most concern to doctors. They’re linked to heart disease if over-consumed. And since fats have twice as many calories as sugar, they can be problematic from an obesity standpoint.

But potato chips actually have the entire holy trinity: They’re also loaded with sugar. Not added sugar—although some varieties do—but the sugar in most chips is in the potato starch itself, which gets converted to sugar in the moment the chip hits the tongue. Unlike fat, which studies show can exist in unlimited quantities in food without repulsing us, we do back off when a food is too sweet. The challenge is to achieve just the right depth of sweetness without crossing over into the extreme. The industry term for this optimal amount of sugar is called the “bliss point.”

So you’ve got all three of the big elements in this one product. But salt, sugar, and fat are just the beginning of the potato chip’s allure. British researchers, for instance, have found that the more noise a chip makes when you eat it, the better you’ll like it and the more apt you are to eat more. So chip companies spend a lot of effort creating a perfectly noisy, crunchy chip.

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

3 Responses to Why potato chips are so good

  1. Jeff says:

    Great interview on The Daily Show a few weeks back too: http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/tue-march-26-2013/michael-moss
    Apparently he loves talking about that bliss point!

  2. Deborah Ferry says:

    Interesting. Explains how I wind up eating the whole bag of chips instead of just one or two.

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