Life Wellbeing Hedonic escalation: The complex-flavoured foods that keep us hooked
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Hedonic escalation: The complex-flavoured foods that keep us hooked

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Hedonic escalation: the unusual and tasty flavour phenomenon that has us devouring more. Photo: Getty
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Food researchers have now identified what causes our addiction to complex flavour combinations of salt, fat and sugar that can create “seemingly limitless” cravings.

It’s called hedonic escalation.

Anyone who has tried the perfect blend of apparently contrasting flavours of sugar, salt and fat in products such as salted caramel ice cream can understand this unusual and tasty phenomenon that has us devouring more.

No one flavour is dominant in these food products or dishes, but a mix of the six flavours – sweet, sour, salty, bitter, sour, umami and fat – creates an irresistible “peak” food experience.

University of Oxford associate professor of marketing Cammy Crolic coined the term ‘hedonic escalation’ – which literally means a rise in pleasure – after studying people’s response to complex, processed food.

Dr Crolic explained most of the time when we habituate to food, flavours become less distinctive and we lose interest as we eat, but complex foods get better with each bite.

The researcher said she was having lunch at a Thai restaurant with her mother when she first considered this phenomenon.

“She said I had to try this soup, that it was going to be delicious, but she warned me that I had to give it a few bites.” Dr Crolic recalled in her research presentation.

“Essentially, [she was saying] I would enjoy it more with each bite and I would eventually love it. This process of enjoying food more with each bite had not been explained in existing literature.

“There’s something about tasting this complex and varied flavour that might be driving hedonic escalation.”

Food researcher Samuel Stephen, who studies sensory and consumer responses to food flavours, told The New Daily complex flavour sensations “hooked” people to certain products through the process of hedonic escalation.

Dr Stephen said a good complex product shouldn’t have a particular, dominant flavour note that could be identified. For example, a consumer shouldn’t be able to detect the presence of garlic.

“It should be nicely blended and have an overall sensation. That’s what makes a product successful in the market,” he said.

The food researcher said many single-pack yoghurt companies took advantage of this understanding about complex food flavouring and added sugar to a base product to amplify sensation and hedonic escalation.

“Sugar as an ingredient makes it more likeable, and these companies take advantage of creating those complex flavours to create that hedonic escalation response.”

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