We're supposed to follow our bliss, but that's not the best approach when it comes to certain foods.
The bliss point is the optimal point of various taste sensations — think sugar, salt and fat — that compel you to go back for more and more of a certain food. It's essentially that "just right" that Goldilocks was striving for as she tried the three bears' porridge.
Food companies spend millions of dollars and hours trying to create a bliss point that results in us consuming more of their foods.
Birth of bliss
The bliss point is a concept developed by psychologist and market researcher Howard Moskowitz. He graduated from Harvard in 1969 with a Ph.D. in experimental psychology. One of the first projects he tackled was getting U.S. Army soldiers to eat their rations. The army was aware that soldiers would often get tired of their MREs or meals ready-to-eat, eating half of them and tossing the rest. It meant the soldiers weren't getting the calories they needed.
"So I started asking soldiers how frequently they would like to eat this or that, trying to figure out which products they would find boring," Moskowitz told The New York Times Magazine in 2013. "They liked flavorful foods like turkey tetrazzini, but only at first; they quickly grew tired of them. On the other hand, mundane foods like white bread would never get them too excited, but they could eat lots and lots of it without feeling they'd had enough."
Many people enjoy and crave big, bold flavors but their brains will depress the desire for them if they get too much of them. It's why the soldiers loved turkey tetrazzini for a while and then went back to eating white bread.
The goal of the bliss point is to find the just right amount of flavors or tastes. If a food balances some two- or three-part combination of sweetness, saltiness and fat in just the right way, we'll keep going back for more of it. That right combination triggers the rewards centers in our brain, giving us a little dopamine kick, which keeps the cycle going.
To that end, food manufacturers test products to find their bliss point. It's not just with chips and cookies and soda, though. If you buy something in a grocery story that isn't fresh produce, it likely went through long stages of testing to find its bliss point, with the ultimate goal of consumers buying it again and again.
Moskowitz has done extensive work in the field, helping companies find the bliss point for new products. One of his biggest successes, which you can read about in the NYT Magazine article, was the development of Cherry Vanilla Dr. Pepper. It took a long while to get the formula for that soda just right, but it was wildly successful.
Finding your bliss point, not theirs
Of course, the more we consume of something that triggers the reward center of brain, the more used to it we get. So then we need to consume more of it just to reach the baseline rush of dopamine we experienced the first time we ate it.
This is especially true of sugar, which is a big part of a lot of bliss points in foods we buy. Writing for CNN, Dr. Darria Long Gillespie, an emergency physician, has a few tips on how to resist foods' bliss points so you can find your own bliss.
1. Look for the sugar. Finding the sugar in your food can be tricky, especially when it hides under one of more than 60 names. Gillespie says to look for "anything ending in '-ose,' 'cane' (sugar, crystals), 'corn' (syrup, sweetener), rice syrup, honey or others." By reducing the sugar in your diet, you'll become more sensitive to it and your tolerance for sweetness will drop. (I cut colas out of my diet years ago, and when I sampled a flavored cola drink this past weekend, I couldn't even finish the 12-ounce can. It still tasted pretty good, but it was far too sweet for me.)
2. Seek out new flavors. Salt and sugar are the go-to combination for hitting a bliss point, but there are so many other flavors out there that will satisfy you and leave you feeling full. Try sour, bitter and umami flavors, and your cravings for salt or sugar should begin to decline as your body develops a taste for these more filling tastes.
3. Practice portion control. This is always the hard one, and it's especially hard to do with the foods that really hit our brains hard. We'll devour a whole bag of chips or a whole candy bar. So, if you're feeling a craving, put the items in a small plate, and when you run out, that's the end of the snack. "Even if you still go back for seconds (totally normal), you'll eat less than if you had the entire bag," Gillepsie said.