Science Can Now Define Foods That Are Too Delicious

Researchers headquartered at the University of Kansas have provided a concrete definition for hyper-palatable foods, which are foods that are designed to make us eat more of them than we intend to. These foods contain a combination of ingredients is so tasty that our conscious efforts to stop eating them are thwarted. The researchers wanted to quantify the characteristics of hyper-palatability and discover how prevalent hyper-palatable foods have become in the American diet.

The study was led by Tera Fazzino, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Kansas and associate director of the Cofrin Logan Center for Addition Research and Treatment at KU’s Life Span Institute. Kaitlyn Rohde, research assistant at the Cofrin Logan Center and Debra K. Sullivan of the Department of Dietetics and Nutrition at the University of Kansas Medical Center also participated in the research. Their research has been published in the journal Obesity and presented at the 7th Annual Obesity Journal Symposium at the Mandalay Bay South Convention Centre in Las Vegas.

The researchers first set out to offer a broadly accepted quantitative definition of just what constitutes a hyper-palatable food. To come up with the definition, researchers reviewed 14 existing studies on foods manufactured to contain ingredients which make them more appealing and used special software to see which ingredients 7,757 foods sold in the U.S. shared. Foods deemed hyper-palatable were split into three categories: those high in salt and fat, those high in fat and sugar, and those high in salt and carbohydrates.

The study then looked at how pervasive these foods were in the American diet. Based on the criteria they established, the team found 62 percent of foods sold in the U.S. would fall into the hyper-palatable category. Of those, 70 percent were high in fat and salt, 25 percent were high in fat and sugar, and 16 percent were high in carbohydrates and salt. Less than a tenth of the items fell into more than one category.

One of the biggest surprises was that many foods labeled as having no, reduced, or low levels of sugar, fat, sodium, or calories were also considered hyper-palatable under the new criteria. Nearly half of these products had levels of fat, salt, sugar, and carbohydrates high enough to be hyper-palatable. These products represented 5 percent of the hyper-palatable foods identified by the researchers.