Study Identifies The Sneaky 'Hyper-Palatable' Foods That Fuel Cravings

It's no secret that many food companies have deliberately engineered their processed food products to be 'hyper-palatable,' meaning they light up the reward centers in the brain, fueling overconsumption and cravings. Many foods fall into this category, but it has remained unclear exactly how many, as well as the precise definition of a hyper-palatable product. Here with the solution — as well as some surprising discoveries — is a new study from the University of Kansas.

Fast food, sugary snacks, potato chips — all things considered hyper-palatable foods in the American diet due to their high levels of sugar, fat, and salt. Newly published research offers criteria that can be used to evaluate whether any particular food item is a hyper-palatable product.

The researchers studied the literature on the topic, used it to develop a definition for hyper-palatable foods, and then applied that definition to more than 7700 food items contained in the USDA's FNDDS database.

The scientists found that three different 'clusters' of ingredients are what makes a food hyper-palatable, including combos of sugar and fat like what is found in ice cream, combos of fat and salt such as with bacon, and combos of salt and carbs, such as with pretzels. The majority of food consumed in the American diet was found to fall into one of these three categories.

Sixty-two-percent of the foods listed in the FNDDS database met the criteria for one or more of the three clusters detailed above. Most were included on the basis of high salt and fat levels, with the next highest group being high fat and sugar, finally followed by high salt and carbs.

The researchers note — with a bit of surprise — that 49-percent of foods labeled as having no or reduced levels of fat, salt, or sugar were still classified as hyper-palatable. The findings indicate that choosing products marketed as having less of one of these trigger ingredients may not be adequate for avoiding addictive foods and the cravings they cause.