Addicted to salted caramel? Research has found that its ‘unholy trinity’ of salt, sugar and fat could be the reason why. No wonder it's cropping up in everything from crisps to nut butter and even green tea
In the mood for salted caramel crisps? With the launch Kettle Foods’ new salted caramel crisps, following in the footsteps of Tesco and Pringles, it seems no snack is immune from this irresistible sweet/salt flavour. It has even found its way into 'health' foods such as Twinings’ Salted Caramel Green Tea, Moma Porridge with Almond Butter and Salted Caramel, Nature Valley Protein Bars and Nakd Salted Caramel Fruit and Nut Nibbles. And now science has pinpointed why it's so moreish.
It's all down to ‘hedonic escalation,' a term coined by Cammy Crolic, associate professor of marketing at Oxford University, who has studied our responses to addictive foods. She found that unlike most foods, which we eat until we get bored or sated, there's no such cut-off with salted caramel, in fact, the opposite is true. “That first taste is okay, but with each taste or sip we find more to enjoy. Each additional bite gives us a chance to learn something new so our enthusiasm for it escalates,” Dr Crolic told The Times .
Behind its moreishness is a distinct combination of sugar, salt and fat. “The food engineers and scientists know that when you put salty and sweet and fatty flavours into foods you are going to get a winner,” Crolic says. “This can be negative because we are designed by evolution to satiate and then stop eating - but they are subverting that and making you eat more. This has important implications for health.”
A so-called ‘bliss point’ of fats and sugars has been buzzing around the industry for years - an addictive combination that can get you hooked and cause a ‘drug-like’ reaction in the brain. As nutritional therapist Daniel O’Shaughnessy highlighted on Get The Gloss in our health food labels feature it can cause us to crave more and eat more.
When combined with high salt levels, the ‘Bliss Point's’ even more blissful. As investigative journalist Michael Moss highlighted in an interview with Time, salt not only acts as a preservative and taste booster, but also masks off-notes in flavours too. Too much of it though and health risks include raised blood pressure and heart problems.
With salt, fat and sugar dubbed ‘an unholy trinity’, how can we make sure our taste buds don't dupe us into eating more than we normally would? A helpful first port of call is the traffic light system on food labels. If you have a 'red' or 'amber' for all three, then chances of 'Bliss Point' foods are high. The NHS website has a useful reference on food labelling and the traffic light system.
However, this doesn’t necessarily provide the full picture, says nutritional therapist, Zoe Stirling . “Most products using the ‘Bliss Point’ are probably made up of ingredients that, in large quantities (precisely the point of the Bliss Point – to make you eat more), will push you into the ‘red’ anyway as it switches off our ability to exercise portion control. I always ask clients to be aware of the ingredients list on products.
"It’s not just about calorie counting; consumers should be aware of the types of foods or ingredients they’re consuming too. So, for example, if a product is made up of lots of additives even though it fares reasonably against the traffic coding system, then it still probably isn’t a great product either. On the flip side, an avocado could be considered a high fat product, but it’s also full of lots of excellent and supportive vitamins and minerals.”
As for those 'healthy' salted caramel treats, being made with natural sugars or fats doesn't necessarily make them less scoffable; after all, the producers want you to repeat buy. Being label and ingredinet savvy is key. “Nakd Salted Caramel Fruit and Nut Nibbles, for example, are actually high in sugar (50.5g per 100g)" points out Zoe. "Whether it’s natural sugar or not, our body will still read and respond to the sugar in the same way, which may lead to blood sugar imbalances.”
Her advice? Don’t look at ingredients like salted caramel in isolation and rely on a sole source of food labelling [like colour coding] to gauge whether something’s healthy or not. “You need to weigh up a product both in terms of the food labelling figures, as well as the specific ingredients to make a call on whether it’s a good food to eat,” says Zoe.
“But ultimately, if it’s packaged and got a label on in the first place, then it’s probably never going to be as good as fresh, label-free produce. Sometimes we just need to go back to basics in my opinion.”