Bliss brain sounds like a good thing. But can it be dangerous? Discover the THREE ingredients that trigger YOUR brain to feel the type of bliss linked to food addictions, cravings, overeating unhealthy foods, increased whole-body inflammation, and much more.
To find out how food science has learned to hijack your food choices (and your health goals), read on!
Have you ever taken a bite of a food that’s so yummy, so delicious, and so powerfully delightful that you literally closed your eyes just to savor it? That’s exactly what food scientists hope you do!
What’s interesting is that for every person who said yes to that question, there’s probably an equal number of different foods imagined. What’s your favorite palate pleaser? Is it something you have often or a rare treat enjoyed on special occasions?
We’re each so unique!
One man’s cinnamon roll is another man’s lasagna – so to speak. You may be surprised to learn that even with a multitude of food favorites, they most likely share a common theme. Well, three themes, but we’ll get to that.
Food serves a purpose
This might seem so basic, you’d be tempted to skip this part. But don’t miss out on how this purpose connects to chronic illness. Food serves to fuel our bodies for optimum performance. Yes, that’s the simple part.
Our three essential macronutrients – healthy proteins, healthy fats, and healthy carbohydrates (veggies!) – work together beautifully to keep the body functioning at peak levels. The body absorbs the nutrients found in these foods and then has the resources to rebuild damaged tissue, fight inflammation, and overcome disease.
For more information on how to determine your own macronutrient balance needs, check out this “Do You Know Your Nutrition Type?” article here.
Fueling our bodies (at regular intervals) provides a much-needed break from our activities. Mealtime is a space in our day for deep breathing, reflection, contemplation, perhaps prayer, and … oh yes, food.
I know that many of you have a go, go, go lifestyle. But our digestive systems simply aren’t designed for that. We don’t digest unless we’re in a relaxed state. There’s a reason that the parasympathetic nervous system response (relaxation) is often referred to as the “rest and digest” response.
Mealtime is a respite,
not a pit stop.
The sympathetic nervous system response is just the opposite. It’s our stress response. The body responds by pumping out stress hormones, bringing us into that all too familiar fight or flight response.
Those dealing with chronic illnesses, including fibromyalgia, have a deep and abiding connection to this fight or flight state. We deal with the imbalanced hormone function, digestive upset, and other symptoms that result from this constant feeling of “being on high alert.”
The alternative is to look for ways to efficiently digest our food. Making mealtime as pleasurable and relaxing as possible is one way. Consuming foods that are natural, nutrient-dense, and fiber-rich is another.
But not all foods fit into this category.
Pleasure and food
Getting back to our palate pleasing foods – do you connect emotions such as joy, happiness, and even bliss to them? For many of us, food and pleasure are synonymous. We have a relationship with food rather than view it as something that we’re simply fueled by.
I recently spoke to a friend who worked in a cafeteria that primarily served heaping portions of what we now call comfort foods. These are the highly processed foods we find in grocery stores, convenience stores, and other retailers. Day after day, she dished out foods that were calorie dense, but nutrient deficient.
Interestingly, she began to notice a pattern in the customers. She realized that she could predict their food choices, with startling clarity. She anticipated their propensity for seconds and their tendency toward indecision. Recognizing their silent internal self-talk, she could practically hear their inner conversations of, “Should I or shouldn’t I?”
The customer’s instantaneous reaction was readable in their eyes. Their reaction of longing and desire was either transparently obvious or non-existent. They either gazed, yearned, and craved the food or their response was detached. “I’ll have some of this and maybe some of that.”
People either viewed the food as fuel or they viewed it as something with which they have a relationship. This is a very simple, yet profound distinction.
Food can be just a fuel or perhaps so much more. For some, particular foods are connected to emotional circumstances such as memories, events, other people, and even comforting love.
When this connection is made, our ability to make healthy food choices is actually hijacked. Our focus is redirected towards unhealthy foods which leads to devastating results for anyone trying to heal.
One factor in this scenario is called bliss point.
What’s Bliss Point?
When it comes to food, there’s an ingredient combo that creates a gustatory (eating) nirvana experience. In fact, when this perfect combination hits the tongue, our brain’s pleasure zones fire out signals that scream, “That’s good!” and “Eat more!”(1)
These particular foods are also referred to as highly palatable. Another term, mouthfeel, also plays a role. In relationship to bliss point, mouthfeel refers to the seductive nature of foods that are scientifically engineered to feel alluring. This includes taste, texture, chewing experience, color, aroma, and possibly sound.(2)
While the compelling nature of mouthfeel can be present both in natural foods and in highly processed foods, the addictive nature of bliss point is a man made (processed) phenomenon. In fact, it’s scientifically manufactured to be addictive and to leave us craving more.
Some examples include Coca Cola and Doritos – “foods that owe their success to complex formulas that pique the taste buds enough to be alluring, but don’t have a distinct, overriding single flavor that tells the brain to stop eating.”(3)
If you don’t find this phenomenon alarming, let me explain why you should.
Have you ever intended to eat a few packaged cookies but instead found yourself eating all of them (or at least significantly more than planned)? Have you ever put a few crackers on your plate and then gone back to the box for more? Have you ever eaten “just a few” chips and then were surprised to find that you’d finished the entire bag?
I’m sure if we’re honest, we’d say yes to at least some, if not all, of these scenarios. I know I would. I used to joke that Thin Mint Girl Scout cookies come in a two-serving package. Many find it difficult to eat only one or two Thin Mint cookies. Instead, they open one sleeve of cookies and eat them all.
If this is you – you’re not alone.
Food manufacturers employ food scientists and food engineers to create this bliss point experience. The foods they create actually blunt the consumer’s natural healthy response that tells them when to say when.
What are the three magic ingredients?
We’ve mentioned that bliss point foods feature three specific ingredients. They don’t all have to be present, but these addictive foods contain either two or three of these ingredients in a very specific ratio.
I’ve referred to them as magic ingredients in the heading above, but perhaps they should be called tragic ingredients? They are —
These three ingredients are studied, experimented with and combined with other artificial flavorings, additives, and chemicals that are literally designed to trigger this bliss point reaction.
Unfortunately, when it comes to the engineering that takes place in food laboratories, the ultimate goal is profit (over your health). This means these configurations are scientifically designed to use the cheapest (low quality) forms of these main ingredients as possible in order to create the highest profits possible.
Sugar is a common denominator here. Even savory (salty) foods are infused with added sugar. Foods such as salad dressings, spaghetti sauce, soups and more, all contain added processed sugars. Considering that sugar is more addictive than cocaine (4), is it any surprise that our taste buds become hijacked?
“The optimum amount of sugar in a product became known as the ‘bliss point.’ Food inventors and scientists spend a huge amount of time formulating the perfect amount of sugar that will send us over the moon and send products flying off the shelves.” ~ Michael Moss
Are you confused about the wide variety of names that food manufacturers use to hide sugars in your foods? If you’d like a handy way to ferret out the sugar that hides in your package labels, check out this handy “60 Ways to Hide Sugar in Labels” downloadable guide.
Bliss point basics you need to know
Imagine walking through a parking lot and finding that someone has grabbed you by your purse strap, arm, or your hair. It would be startling to say the least, right? Your body would change direction in an instant and your full attention would be focused on who (or what) is responsible.
In much the same way, your activated bliss point changes the direction of your health goals in an instant. You take a bite of something highly palatable and your attention shifts. The problem is that this shift in focus is misdirected. Rather than becoming aware of this shift, instead you’re highly aware of something else.
You’re not focused on the problem. Your taste buds have now been hijacked. You’re now focused on the food. To make matters worse, the food is regarded as friend rather than foe.
Here’s what an activated bliss point response does —
It triggers you to eat more
It triggers you to eat mindlessly
It triggers you to eat the same foods repeatedly
Food manufacturers know – and bank on – this phenomenon.
To that point, I’ve seen lots of articles demonizing food scientists. While I certainly don’t think they’re a bunch of saints (I’m particularly horrified at the ethics of advertising unhealthy, addictive foods to children), I want to point out that we, as consumers, have a choice. We get to choose where we plunk down our hard-earned dollars.
Make no mistake,
food manufacturing is not
a service industry:
it’s a BUSINESS.
And, it’s big business. Processed foods account for over 1 trillion dollars (yes, that’s trillion, not billion) per year in sales. (5) It’s not a surprise then, that food manufacturers make it their priority to ensure a profit for their shareholders. There’s a lot at stake. It serves us well to remember that keeping us healthy is not their focus nor their priority. That’s up to us.
Food manufacturers can make their chips, sodas, crackers, cereals, pastries, breads, pastas, microwave and freezer meals, dairy confections, toaster products, sodas, power drinks, blended coffee drinks, etc. all day long. (And, they do.) However, that doesn’t mean that we have to line up to buy. It’s my passion to re-direct the focus and shed light on what’s IN the foods we eat. This gives us the facts we need to make healthy decisions. Once we’re enlightened, we can no longer plead ignorance to what’s in highly processed foods.
When it comes to the politics of the food industry, there are wonderful, intelligent, and articulate experts who do an amazing job bringing this angle on the food issue to light. We can be grateful to Michael Moss, author of Salt, Sugar, Fat, for sharing startling and pertinent food facts.
Another food politics advocate I admire is Marion Nestle.(6) I’ve heard her speak in person, and her dynamic approach to holding the food industry accountable is simply mesmerizing.
Again, it’s my passion to inform you, and this community, about the opportunities food has to offer. Food can either serve as a nutrient powerhouse to build you up, or it can be the very thing to sabotage your health goals and tear you down. It isn’t all or nothing, but are the highly processed and packaged foods available for consumption worth the risk?
You get to decide. Each purchase you make provides an opportunity to bolster your nutrition goals. Make your dollars (as well as your food choices) count!
- What is Bliss Point?
- Food Addicts’ Glossary: Mouthfeel
- The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food
- Why Sugar is Called “The White Death” and the Sugar Cancer Connection
- Michael Moss
- Food Politics
Have you (and your health goals) been hijacked by bliss brain? Do tell! Share your experiences in the comments below and let’s get talking 😉
*This article is my original work and first appeared at ProHealth.com. It is reprinted with kind permission and may be viewed HERE.