Beyond Salt, Sugar and Fat: Why we like crunchy food
I have a confession to make - I am a crunch-aholic. Like many people, I am drawn to “crunchy” food choices. I often wonder though, is it the salt that often goes hand in hand with crunchy food or is it the sound that is made when biting into crunchy food that draws me to that particular item. Is it an addiction like sugar? Is it a “comfort food” when under stress? Many people are drawn to crunchy foods and it is not just due to the salt that usually accompanies a crunchy food; it is the crunch. It is the cracking sound that is made as the jaws close on the food. A wilted, salty chip does not have the same satisfaction as a crunchy chip. So while many people like the salt taste on the tongue, it is the crunch they seek. Crunchy, crackly or crispy, however you define the sound a chip makes when you bite into it, does attract us to food. As Chef Mario Batali once wrote, “The single word ‘crispy’ sells more food than a barrage of adjectives.” It is addictive. It is a comfort food.
Use of the Five Senses
Whenever we eat, we use all five senses in the experience to some extent. We see the food before we eat it. The smell wafts up to our nose as we bring it closer to our mouth. We touch it with our fingers to bring it to our mouth or we touch it with our lips and tongue to taste it. And we hear it as we bite down on it. When noshing on crunchy food, that crunching sound can be audible so that others hear it or it can be less audible so only the eater hears it. According to John S. Allen, author of The Omnivorous Mind, sound is “an underappreciated component” of eating and crunchy foods “enhance the sensory experience of eating”. A study done in 2011 confirms what Allen suggests. Participants were put in a room to taste potato chips while wearing headphones. The “crunch” sound was captured by a microphone and replayed in the headphones at different levels of frequencies. The result, "The potato chips were perceived as being both crisper and fresher when either the overall sound level was increased, or when just the high-frequency sounds (in the range of 2-20 kilohertz) were selectively amplified." So, the louder the crunch, the better the chip, and thus a satisfied chip eater. But Allen also offers another option suggesting that the sound of crunch may stave off dietary boredom by adding variety to sensory experience.
Sensory-specific satiety is a term used to state that one strong flavor can trigger fullness, which leads us to move on to another food. In Salt, Sugar Fat, Michael Moss says scientists believe we are hard wired this way in order to get the variety of nutrients needed by the body. If that is so, why do people eat an entire bag of chips or bowl of popcorn in one sitting? The answer could be that we are eating crunchy foods for some reason other than to get nutrients.
Our taste buds are made up of 5 sensory points - salt, sweet, bitter, sour and umami and most foods have one or more of these attributes. For some people, sweet is what they crave and for others it is salt, both in the form of refined carbohydrates. This type of craving is not used to satisfy our taste buds though. It is a form of addiction. According to the Food Addiction Institute, food addiction is the loss of control over the ability to stop eating certain types of food. Most people agree that individuals who crave sweets or salt do so to satisfy a sensory point after having been triggered by some emotional element or event. They eat for comfort when they are depressed or they eat for comfort when they are stressed. The difference is the type of food they reach for in those circumstances. A recent study confirms that individuals reach for a certain type of food more often when they are under stress than when they are not under stress and men, specifically, tend to reach for salty/crunchy foods more often than women.
Craving salt is associated with adrenal fatigue, which can be brought on by stress and anxiety. According to Abigail Christens, a life coach and blogger at MindBodyGreen.com, the draw to crunchy snacks, which tend to be salty, is in response to anger or anxiety and that the crushing of the food with the jaw provides a physical outlet for this stress. But it is not just the crushing of any food; it is the crushing of crunchy food and the corresponding crunchy sound. Call it therapeutic mastication. Basically, you get a temporary release of the anger and frustration by biting down on crunchy foods when it is really your boss’s head you want to bite off. The louder the sound of the crunch to the eater, the better the relief and the more “satisfied” you are with the food. It is a way to “get your voice” heard when you could not actually say what was really on your mind. This can play out in work relationships as well as personal relationships.
Why else grab crunchy foods?
In The Omnivorous Mind, Allen’s main point for crunchy food preference is based on our primal ancestors food choices. Before fire was discovered, an easy way for our primal ancestors to get protein and fat was through eating bugs. Many bugs have hard outer casings that provide the crunchy sound when eaten. Allen speculates that our desire for crunch is a deep-seated behavior in a search for protein and fat. Many cultures around the world today still eat bugs as part of their diet. Americans, however, do not. And, while the types of crunchy food Americans tend to reach for do contain a good amount of fat, these foods generally lack protein.
Another consideration for the desire of crunchy foods is that it provides away to connect with a positive experience from one’s childhood. For my family, eating popcorn on Saturday night and watching a movie was a ritual I fondly recall. We were spending time together and popcorn was a part of that experience.
Make it Healthy
When you find yourself under a lot of stress, it is important to remember why you are reaching for those crunchy snacks and then try to reach for healthier alternatives. Better yet, utilize another outlet like exercise to help alleviate that stress. I reach for crunchy carbohydrates when I am bored or when I am stressed. As of late, instead of reaching for that gluten-free cracker, I am reaching for celery and slathering on almond butter. A healthier version, for sure, and I am still releasing the tension in my jaw.
Allen, J. S. (2012, May 27). Why Humans are Crazy for Crispy. The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Chronicle Review.
Van der Bilt, A., Pocztaruk, R. L., & Frasca, L. C. et al (2011). The influence of auditory and visual information on the neuromuscular control of chewing crispy food. European Journal of Oral Sciences, 427-434. doi:10.1111/j.1600-0722.2011.00878 .x
Moss, M. (2013). Salt, sugar, fat: How the food giants hooked us. New York: Random House
Food Addiction Institute | What is Food Addiction. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://foodaddictioninstitute.org
Kandiah, J., Yake, M., & Willett, H. (2008). Effects of Stress on Eating Practices Among Adults. Family and Consumer Sciences Research Journal. doi:10.1177/1077727X08322148 pages 35-36
Christens, A. (2012, April 19). What Does Your Food Craving Mean? [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://mindbodygreen.com