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Diet Glossary Nutrition Weight and Obesity

Data Driven Definition Of Unhealthy Pervasive Hyper Palatable Foods

2 years, 9 months ago

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Posted on Nov 11, 2019, 6 p.m.

Recent research published in Obesity offers some specific metrics that may qualify foods as being hyper palatable, and it also finds most of the foods consumed within America as meeting this criteria: “betchya can’t eat just one!”

Potato chips, much like so many other foods in the American diet can pack of mix of ingredients that are more apt to light up the brain’s reward neural circuitry to overpower mechanisms that are supposed to signal when we have had enough to eat. 

This class of food which is most often processed foods or sweets loaded with alluring combinations of sugar, fat, carbohydrates and sodium which is called hyper palatable by researchers. While there is no shortage of studies to address hyper palatable foods over the last decade or so, none have offered a broadly accepted quantitative definition of what constitutes a hyper palatable food. 

The recent study which was also presented at the 7Th Annual Obesity Journal Symposium will serve to change that by offering specific metrics that may qualify foods as being hyper palatable, the findings also indicate that most foods consumed in America meet this criteria. 

"Multiple documentaries have pointed out that food companies have very well-designed formulas for these types of foods to make them palatable and essentially enhance consumption," said lead author Tera Fazzino, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Kansas and associate director of the Cofrin Logan Center for Addiction Research and Treatment at KU's Life Span Institute. "But these definitions are virtually unknown to the scientific community, which is a major limitation. If there's no standardized definition, we can't compare across studies -- we've just typically used descriptive definitions like 'sweets,' 'desserts' and 'fast foods.' That type of descriptive definition isn't specific to the actual mechanisms by which the ingredients lead to this enhanced palatability. This has been a substantial limitation in the field I thought was important to try to address."

The researchers sought to define the criteria for hyper palatable foods by conducting a literature review then using nutritional software and applying their definition to 7,757 food items from the US FNDDS; items were searched for that met criteria established by the review as enhancing palatability, specifically where  "the synergy between key ingredients in a food creates an artificially enhanced palatability experience that is greater than any key ingredient would produce alone." Synergies were identified with specific values and were applied to clusters: combinations of fat and sodium; combinations of fat and simple sugars; and combinations of carbohydrates and sodium. 

"We essentially took all of the descriptive definitions of the foods from the literature -- for example Oreos or mac and cheese -- and we entered these one by one into a nutrition program that is very careful in how it quantifies a food's ingredients," said Fazzino. "This nutrition software essentially provides in fine-grained detail a data set that specifies how many calories per serving are in this food, and how much fat, sodium, sugar, carbohydrates, fiber and all sorts of other things."

"Essentially, we wanted to identify foods that appear to cluster together with what appeared to be like similar levels of at least two ingredients, because that's the theoretical basis for inducing the synergistic palatability effect," said Fazzino. "Through a visualization process, we were able to see there were essentially three types of foods that appeared to cluster together in terms of their ingredients."

Once able to quantify characteristics of hyper palatability the definition was applied to foods cataloged in the FNDDS hoping to discover how prevalent these hyper palatable foods have become in the American diet. 62% of the foods cataloged in the FNDDS were found to have met the criteria for at least one of the three clusters identified; 70% of those qualifying items were high in fat and sodium, 25% were high in fat and sugar, 16% were high in carbohydrates and sodium, and close to 10% of these hyper palatable foods qualified in more than 1 cluster. 

Items which were labeled as being reduced or no fat, salt, sugar, or calories were found to represent 5% of the hyperpalatable foods which were identified by the researchers; of all the items labeled as being low/no/reduced fat, sodium, sugar in the FNDDS 49% met the criteria for being hyper palatable. 

"We need more evidence -- but eventually if research begins to support that these foods may be particularly problematic for society, I think that could warrant something like a food label saying 'this is hyperpalatable,'" she said. "We might even think about the restriction of certain types of foods that are available in certain places -- for example, in elementary school cafeterias for kids whose brains are still developing and who may be impacted by these types of foods."

Findings may offer guidance to policymakers in hopes to warn consumers about hyper palatable foods to improve children’s diets. Fazzino has plans to build on this work by analysing how the ubiquity of hyper palatable foods in America compares with foods in other nations, and she has applied for a grant to compare with those consumed in Southern Italy where a Mediterranean diet is more prevalent. 

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