The Bliss Bite

I thrive on data. I love to sift through statistics and and qualitative research piecing together unrelated fact streams and digging deeply into areas of intrigue. I like to read research projects and report back.  This fascination fuels my day job where I’m able to dig into customer research and opinion trends and create or modify programs to meet changing demands.

flickr.com 2.0 Michael Kreil

flickr.com 2.0 Michael Kreil

There are others with this interest but I’ve just become aware of the one who may be the Obi Wan of product optimization. He has optimized soups. He has optimized pizzas. He has optimized salad dressings and pickles. In his own self-description, “he’s a game changer”.

Meet Howard Moskowitz whose day job is that of a Market researcher, Psychophysicist, CEO of i-Novation Inc., and President of Moskowitz Jacobs Inc.  Moskowitz, whose awards and credentials could fill a multiple page post on their own, is notable in the food industry for his ground-breaking or dare I say sauce-lifting work with Prego. In food scenarios he alters a stream of variables for the distinct purpose of finding the perfectly appealing version of a product.  This perfect appeal is referred to by those in the food industry as “the bliss point” – the point where consumers crave a product the most. Not only does Moskowitz work with texture and all elements of a food product’s ingredients but through conjoint analysis he compares the textures and tastes against other variables such as packaging and color.  The result is a stream of infinite combinations which have produced market winners such as Prego chunky spaghetti sauce, Cherry vanilla Dr. Pepper and many, many more.

His science is brilliant.  “The mathematical model maps out the ingredients to the sensory perceptions these ingredients create so I can just dial a new product. This is the engineering approach, ” he recently told the NY Times. This article is worthy of your attention. Moskowitz’s product preference studies are also able to be segmented by age, geographical location, sex and race.

I have a deep fascination with this work. I marvel at the predictive analytics that can be used on something as personal as my taste buds. And Moskowitz isn’t the only one who conducts this type of research. There are numerous examples of product sales gone wild through this type of engineering such as lunchables, chili-cheese fritos and other intelligent combinations of sugar, salt and fat.

Couple this exciting science with an American public that has largely turned from regular meals into a more snacking generation and you have a perfect storm – 21 varieties of Cheetos. Apparently this history has been documented and will appear later this month in a new book titled, “Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us,” published by Random House. The problem, as I see it, is that we are also a generation seeking the comfort of our traditions. After all, food tradition is what I blog about with some frequency.  And the food tradition of much of the population in the country and beyond is that of colorfully wrapped snack foods.

Imagine the possibilities if we sent these mensa giants out with a cucumber, a sack of figs, and some walnuts. The possibility of applying their brilliance to the obesity crisis and the notion of increasing healthy eating would not rack up billions for the junk food giants – rather it would stabilize a health care system for generations to come.  The article closes with one bright story where these principles have been used to increase the consumption of carrots. You know the ones I’m referring to; neatly shaved into small stubs and wrapped in lunch box sized baggies.  It’s a way to use the marketing of junk food with something that is not.

The carrots are a step forward but to me, this seems a bright philanthropic invitation for food scientists in their old age.

Your take?

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48 Comments

  1. Agreed: it’s one thing to be fascinated with the science of taste and create healthy foods, and quite another to be fascinated with the science of consumer preferences and create highly-processed popular junk phoods. Like you I am fascinated with the analytical process behind the products, but see enormous benefit in food and enormous cost in phood.

    Reply
    • But don’t you marvel at the possibilities that might be created should these analytical processes be applied to consumer behaviors that are healthy? How to get more memberships in CSA, how to increase consumption of whole foods, how to create a craving for outdoor play and exercise? I feel a b-corp coming on!

      Reply
  2. Bonnie

     /  September 14, 2013

    Tammy, I love the idea of sorting through research and data and trends and feedback to find a bliss point. Thanks for sharing that idea. I also admire the executives who tried to get together to take responsibility for marketing unhealthy food to children. The companies who do that effectively and let us know about it will be rewarded as I believe people are looking for healthy and fast options.

    One of the concerns I did not understand but learned about from our mutual friend Marty is that health conscious companies eventually sell their product to a company who most often does not care about offering a healthy product–but care about capitalizing on the good brand name and making it cheaper by possibly adding or removing ingredients that made it a good choice in the first place. That is one reason I started shopping in a Co-op as they assured me they keep track of the labels and are especially watchful after a brand sells to a new company.

    Thanks for your blog. It is always thought provoking.

    Reply
    • Thanks for reading Bonnie! I understand your concern and another possible solution is that of the B corporation. So far, 17 states and the District of Columbia have passed legislation creating benefit corporations (http://www.bcorporation.net). Although new and I don’t know a lot about them, this provides for a higher level of transparency in operations and I “believe” limits the changes that an acquirer can make. This passed in the AZ legislator this year and will go into effect in December of 2014. I believe it may be introduced in MN during the next session.

      Reply
  3. Hmm, food for thought – pun not intended. As usual you provided another interesting article. I think NPR profiled Moskowitz not too long ago – I think. Interesting. I make a conscious effort to read labels and stay away from so-called popular new foods.

    Reply
  4. Lisa H

     /  September 14, 2013

    Fascinating blog, Tammy. I believe children are primed at an early age to become fast food junkies–the combo of sugars, fats and salt start with the neatly and highly convenient “snacks” for kids. We definitely need more of the mini-carrot-whole-food options. My kids actually preferred the pre-cut apples in small baggies for their school lunches even though I was happy to buy and cut them myself. Kids!

    Reply
    • They prefer them because there are very wise data scientists behind the scenes digging deeply into the attributes that most cause their brains to want them that way. And yes, this same technique is used to cause them to want junk food. I am truly in awe of the science behind this and cannot wait to see it directed to good.

      Reply
  5. Tammy,
    I always enjoy what you’ve got planned for me to think about next. It would be amazing to have all that brainpower directed at boosting the viability of CSA farms across the country.

    Reply
  6. it boggles my mind how much money is spent to encourage people to eat / drink badly!

    Reply
  7. I think this taste-and-texture-engeneering is a great example of how science can be abused for the well-being of the people. While the approach is inherently fascinating, I’m reluctant to believe it can be applied to natural foods so easily – as it’s said the key elements are sugar, salt, and fat, all of which are unhealthy in excess. Of course you can make comfort food using natural ingredients (dates, agave, cashews, etc), and that might be slightly healthier but still isn’t healthy to live on. What healthy are whole grains, beans, veggies, fruit, etc, but those foods won’t give you the high that comes from sugar, salt, and fat.

    Are you acquainted with the pleasure trap concept by psychologist Doug Lisle? Here’s a lecture on it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nxf4kj8Rb6Y I think it’s very interesting how he explains why it’s so hard to get off unhealthy foods, and why people coming from there find healthy, natural foods rather bland at first.

    Reply
    • I haven’t seen it and will watch it. I want to disagree that these principles can’t be applied elsewhere. I know that it’s so easy with addictive substances but since I’ve written this post, I’ve had the pleasure of interacting with Howard Moskowitz. In fact, he is doing work now, using the same engine, to discover different types of communication styles that are more sticky and using that data to decrease the number of hospital re-entries or appliying it to conflicts to discover where resolution best occurs. I know I’m being idealistic about whole foods but I’m not willing to let go of this one yet.

      Reply
      • That’s good to hear! I still have hope as well! :)

        Reply
      • I hope you never do let go Tammy. It’s individuals like yourself with no products to push who will best mentor the next generations of eaters. It’s a long road, but eating together is a pleasure with some serious power for change.

        Reply
        • You know Jackie, I think one thing I’ve learned in the past 4 years is how incredibly complicated the issue of hunger is. I read about a terrific program the other day that was delivering whole foods together with cooking classes and support and how it was barely able to move the needle. With some science to support the process, it could be terrific.

          Reply
          • I think the communication gap is more delicate than most people realize. There is a cultural gap that is not so easy to bridge…

            Reply
            • I agree! And here’s where I am optimistic! The same mathematic formulas can be used to help us determine the best messaging! Howard Moskowitz (contacted me based upon this post) and he is even doing some work in this area around Israeli-Palistenian conflict.

              Reply
          • This is actually a huge, enormously important conversation going on in the “intervention” world. Part of the problem is that social and behavior interventions are extremely complex; part of the problem is figuring out and communicating what is the “key” components to successful replication. Until you understand what makes a program work, you can’t reasonably expect to successfully disseminate it. We have too many fields, too many people glued to their favorite ideology, a lack of enough shared language, and you can’t just drop people or communities into sterile boxes. It’s not just about taste. It’s not just about knowledge (bet 95% of pregnant women can recite how many fruits and veg they should eat a day but they aren’t doing it). It’s about subconscious elements, conscious decisions, time, energy, confidence, resources, context/environment, families, institutions, policies, macro-level food systems… I had a discussion with a faculty member who was talking about talking to media about the causes of obesity, and my suggestion for a sound-bite is that it is multifactorial. There is no magical statin, or vaccine.

            That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep chipping away at it, though, because we must all work to affect change to have hope of improving the situations. Also, if you increase consumption by a half cup a day and maintain it, that’s like 170 cups a year. If you increase it again the next year… And this should practically be its own blog post.

            Reply
            • You’re exactly right and that is what this research does. One of HM’s examples is that if you are looking to sell a new product to a 50+, white, British, male, with over $10m per year income and a love of nature, you’d think you’d have a concise subset that you could just run out to. No. Turns out that both Prince Charles and Ozzy Osbourne fit that profile yet their tastes and their texture preferences and their communication styles will be wildly different.

              This science enables messages to be created that will appeal – assuming you have the upfront research.

              Reply
  8. Kathy McNamara

     /  September 16, 2013

    A battle with my family I am having now is throwing out all processed food! Their beloved Blue boxed Mac and Cheese is a constant argument and Dad loves that evil blue box too. The kids have been using their allowance to buy junk food instead of eating the fruit cut up and ready for them after school.

    Reply
    • It is a battle Kathy. My kids also use their money on food. It amazes me since we have so much good food here yet those Spicy Nacho Cheese Doritos beckon them. And when they do buy them, I find myself stealing a chip or 5. This is a journey. Maybe you can have a Mac night at your house where everyone creates their own and you vote. My kids are more interested when they help.

      Reply
  9. I grew up fascinated with marketing & advertising. Early in my sales career, I was exposed to a sales trainer who really changed my paradigm in many ways. One thing that has stuck with me forever after was this: the only difference between a salesman and a con is intent.

    Unfortunately, the uses for this type of knowledge are mostly squandered on poor intent. It’s always a slippery slope when one group strategizes to manipulate the thought process of others, no matter how earnestly. Even more unfortunate is that the general population actually seems to prefer and even ask to be told what to think, so who’s to blame really?

    The propaganda issued by the teaming of government and Advertising during WW I & II is an excellent example of this type of work being applied to getting people to pitching in to feed themselves, but even that ended up having a negative, manipulative outcome.

    Sadly, most Americans prefer to take the easy road – modern, sophisticated folks go to the store and read labels, crunchy counter-culture non-conformists put up their own. Spending time selling food to people who think cutting a boneless, skinless chicken breast or thawing a package of frozen meat is too much to bother with is a real eye opener… Kath’s comments about the pleasure trap and simple foods is right on.

    Reply
    • I completely understand your disappointment with the convenience generation yet I find myself in there to a certain degree. I was talking with a woman the other day who said that she couldn’t believe that people bought bacon rather than curing their own. Well, we aren’t a big bacon house but the thought of making my own tickled me as I’ve never considered it.

      I agree about the slippery slope of manipulating thoughts but honestly, I need to think more deeply about it. If I can shape one’s thinking about healthy food or conflict or diversity or whatever, then I am inclined to pursue that. I think the bigger issue comes on the opposite side when we aren’t doing an adequate job of teaching individuals to think critically. In my opinion, that is the foundation of our democracy and something that I see most at risk.

      Sure wish you were closer to so we could chat over a meal!

      Reply
  10. After years of stability, my weight is really trying harder to creep up. I would soooo be behind setting the “brain trust” on this. I think that obesity is something we really don’t understand (despite distilling it to calories vs energy expended).

    Reply
    • Agree! Obesity and for that matter, hunger, is something we don’t understand! It is intensely complex. Yet Inger, I hardly believe that this is going to assist you with your own weight stability! As a middle-aged mom, I am in the same spot and all the advertising in the world is going to be needed to help me shed the excess.

      Reply
  11. After having house guests this weekend (and eating more “treats” than normal), BFF and I focused on fruits, veggies, and whole grains for lunch . . . keeping sugar, salt, and fat to the bare minimum. My personal “bliss point.”

    Aah . . . that’s better!

    Reply
  12. I recently heard about a restaurant in NYC that serves everything in 2 ounce portions, the theory being that after 5 bites, we cease to really taste the food. I’m not sure about this—but it does play a role in the ever-increasing desire for salt-sugar-fat to spark taste. Conversely that kind of portion control would really be beneficial…

    Reply
    • The molecular gastronomy restaurant, Posh that we have here applies a principle like that. You have a similar place in TN, although the name escapes me at the moment. Reading about some of the snack foods, they are especially “light” (full of air – this baked cheeto) because it causes our brain to think we aren’t eating much.

      Reply
  13. I love the sound of the book. Yes, we’re definitely a generation that has lost its way no thanks to what has been pushed at us through mega supermarkets. But, like you say, there is a growing trend towards getting back to how our parents and grandparents lived that includes growing your own produce (organically) and cooking from scratch and avoiding anything in a sparkling packet xx

    Reply
  14. Thought this might interest you:

    http://foodmyths.org/

    Reply
  15. Great post!
    I started developing food allergies this year, so I had to start reading food labels more carefully and I was very surprised.

    Reply
  16. Author Jane Ward

     /  September 19, 2013

    While I appreciate the science, am even in awe of it, I find the whole area of study fairly horrifying. I’m with you: let’s find a way to use the science for good so that we can become enamored of something like kale chips instead of nacho cheese Doritos.

    Reply
    • And it can be done Jane! I’m am also in awe of this science. The process is so intriguing and it is such a powerful tool. Moving it to the “bright side” could do wonders for us!

      Reply
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