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Study identifies ingredient combos that make some foods hard to put down

Researchers sought to assess the ingredients or groups of ingredients in "hyper-palatable" foods, most of which are loaded with are loaded with fat, sugar, carbohydrates or salt.

By
Brian P. Dunleavy
Bags of salty snacks which contain high levels of sodium are sold at the Westside Market on January 11, 2010, in New York City. File Photo by Monika Graff/UPI
Bags of salty snacks which contain high levels of sodium are sold at the Westside Market on January 11, 2010, in New York City. File Photo by Monika Graff/UPI | License Photo

Nov. 5 (UPI) -- Still polishing off that Halloween candy?

There could be a reason people just can't stop eating certain foods. It may have to do with the ingredients, and a new study suggests product labeling may not be an accurate guide.

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In a study published Tuesday in the journal Obesity and presented at the Seventh Annual Obesity Journal Symposium during ObesityWeek in Las Vegas, researchers at the University of Kansas point the finger at so-called "hyper-palatable" foods.

The researchers sought to assess just what ingredients or groups of ingredients make up these "hyper-palatable" foods -- snacks and fast-food products some people have difficulty putting down.

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Most hyper-palatable foods are loaded with fat, sugar, carbohydrates or salt, but to date there hasn't been a broadly accepted definition of what constitutes products in this category.

These are foods like "many meats, protein-based dishes such as bacon and eggs, many cakes, cookies, ice creams, and many snacks such as crackers, pretzels and buttered popcorn and biscuits," lead author Tera Fazzino, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Kansas and associate director of the school's Cofrin Logan Center for Addiction Research and Treatment at the Life Span Institute, told UPI.

For the research, Fazzino and her colleagues used specialty software to identify and quantify common ingredients and nutrition information for 7,757 food items listed in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrient Database for Dietary Studies.

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The researchers looked specifically for products in which "the synergy between key ingredients... creates an artificially enhanced palatability experience that is greater than any key ingredient would produce alone."

They sorted foods with these synergies into three "clusters" -- products with combinations of fat and sodium, products with combinations of fat and simple sugars, and products with combinations of carbohydrates and sodium.

In general, they found that 62 percent of foods in the USDA database met the criteria for at least one of the three clusters of hyper-palatable food, with 70 percent high in fat and sodium. Another 25 percent of the hyper-palatable foods were high in fat and sugar, while 16 percent of the foods were high in carbohydrates and sodium.

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Interestingly, items labeled as reduced or no fat, sugar, salt or calories represented 5 percent of the hyper-palatable foods identified by the researchers. And, of all items labeled as low, reduced or no sugar, fat, sodium or sugar in the USDA database, 49 percent met the authors' criteria for hyper-palatable.

"Keeping in mind that hyper-palatable foods contain multiple ingredients that enhance palatability, a combination of sugar, fat, sodium, and/or carbohydrates, people might examine whether foods they eat contain multiple ingredients such as fat and sodium, particularly at high levels," Fazzino said. "Foods that would not be expected to be hyper-palatable are ones that are naturally occurring and have limited additional ingredients, such as a fresh apple."

Offering people a difference to choose healthier foods that don't fit into the hyper-palatable category -- with labels in grocery stores or some type of restrictions in schools -- could help reduce consumption of them, but more research will be needed, she said.

Fazzino said someday the team's research might offer guidance to policymakers hoping to warn consumers about hyper-palatable foods and improve the diet of children, and they plan to build on this work by analyzing how the ubiquity of hyper-palatable foods in the U.S. diet compares to foods available in other nations.

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