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Are These Chips Too Delicious? / Love at First Crunch

Scientists know the secrets of making food taste great. But all this yumminess might be bad for our health.

By Lauren Tarshis

Learning Objective: Students will read two articles about how food companies make foods—especially potato chips—irresistible. Students will synthesize information from each article to question what goes into snacks and whether these snacks are healthy.

Lexiles: 800L-900L, 700L-800L
Guided Reading Level: T
DRA Level: 50

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Synthesizing

As you read these articles, look for what each one tells you about how and why companies make food taste great.

Are These Chips Too Delicious?

Scientists know the secrets of making food taste great. But all this yumminess might be bad for our health.

They work in secret labs. They do not speak of their research. What they learn can be worth millions of dollars. It can change lives. 

Are these scientists working on a cure for a disease? On a new weapon? Nope. Their work is right in front of you. It’s in that fruit juice you’re sipping and in those chips you’re munching. These scientists are called flavorists. They work to make food taste great. They excel at concocting flavors you will love, from a lip-smacking berry for a sports drink to a mouthwatering chili-cheese coating for a pretzel.

Flavorists use thousands of chemicals, oils, and extracts. Some chemicals are natural; they come from plants and animal products. Others are synthetic. Even a simple flavor, like the strawberry taste of a milkshake, may have 50 chemicals in it. 

Meet some special scientists. They work in secret labs. They don’t talk about their research. What they learn can be worth millions of dollars. It can change lives.

Are they working on a cure for a disease? Or a new weapon? Nope. Their work is right in front of you. It’s in that fruit juice you’re sipping. It’s in those chips you’re munching. These scientists are called flavorists. They work to make food taste delicious. They’re great at concocting flavors you will love—like a sweet berry taste for a sports drink. Or a mouthwatering chili-cheese coating for a pretzel.

Flavorists use thousands of products. Some are natural. They come from plant or animal products. Others are synthetic, or made in a lab. Think about the strawberry taste of a milkshake. It may have 50 ingredients in it.

From Fresh to Tasteless

Today’s flavor industry got its start in the 1950s. At that time, eating habits in the U.S. changed. It used to be that if you wanted some cookies, you had to bake them or go to the bakery. To get fruits or veggies, you had to grow them yourself or buy them fresh from a nearby farm. 

But processed food changed all that. Food that has been processed has been frozen, canned, or treated with chemicals called preservatives. These chemicals keep food fresh for days—or months—on store shelves. Processing started in the 1800s. In the 1940s, companies began to use preservatives in a big way. With new highways and refrigerated trucks, companies could send their foods to stores around the country. But most foods lost their flavor as they sat in trucks and on shelves. The goal of the first food flavorists was to make processed foods taste even halfway as good as fresh. 

Today, nearly 60 percent of the foods we eat are processed. Flavorists still work to make these foods taste good. They also invent new flavors. They search the world for new tastes to bring to the U.S., like chipotle peppers from Mexico and acai berries from Brazil. And they dream up new flavors for well-known snacks. (Have you tried Lay’s Dill Pickle potato chips? Neither have we!) 

Today’s flavor business got its start in the 1950s. Before that, if you wanted some cookies, you had to bake them or go to the bakery. You had to grow fruits and veggies or buy them fresh from a farm.

But that all changed when food started to be processed. That means it has been frozen, canned, or treated with preservatives. Preservatives keep food fresh for days—or months—on store shelves. In the 1940s, companies began to use them in a big way. There were new highways and refrigerated trucks. So companies could send their foods to stores around the country. But most foods lost their flavor. The first food flavorists had to try to make processed foods taste fresh.

Today, nearly 60 percent of the foods we eat are processed. Flavorists still work to make these foods taste good. They also invent new flavors. They search the world for new tastes to bring to the U.S.—like chipotle peppers from Mexico. And they dream up new flavors for well-known snacks. (Have you tried Lay’s Dill Pickle potato chips?)

Slimy Pink Blob

It can take years to perfect a new taste. A successful flavor—a tangy citrus for gum, a zesty spice for chips—can earn millions of dollars. No wonder flavor companies guard their formulas with such care.

But what makes a flavor “good”? Why do we love some tastes and not others? 

Check out your tongue in a mirror. That slimy pink blob is a great flavor-detecting tool. You have 10,000 taste buds on the insides of your cheeks and on your tongue. They can sense five different flavors. These flavors are sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami, which is a rich flavor, like meat or cheese.

Our power to sense flavors is a survival tool. Thousands of years ago, when people hunted and gathered food in the wild, a quick taste could tell them whether a food was edible or deadly. A bitter berry? It will kill you! That sour hunk of buffalo meat? Bleh, it’s rotten! 

Yet our tongues play only a small role in how we sense flavor. Ever wonder why food tastes bland when your nose is stuffed up? It’s because your tongue is pretty lost without your nose. The tongue knows whether a food is sweet or bitter. But it takes both taste and smell to tell your brain whether that ice cream you’re eating is chocolate or vanilla. 

It can take years to perfect a new taste—a tangy citrus for gum or a zesty spice for chips. A successful flavor can earn millions of dollars. No wonder flavor companies keep their findings secret.

But what makes a flavor “good”? Why do we love some tastes and not others?

Check out your tongue in a mirror. That slimy pink blob is great at detecting flavors. You have 10,000 taste buds inside your mouth. They can sense five different flavors: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami. That’s a rich flavor, like you taste in meat or cheese.

Our power to sense flavors has helped humans survive. Thousands of years ago, people hunted and gathered food in the wild. A quick taste could tell them whether a food was edible or deadly. A bitter berry? It will kill you! That sour hunk of buffalo meat? It’s rotten!

Still, your tongue is pretty lost without your nose. The tongue knows whether a food is sweet or bitter. But it takes both taste and smell to tell your brain whether that ice cream you’re eating is chocolate or vanilla.

Burst of Flavor

Flavorists know how taste works. And food companies know which tastes will sell best. How do they know? They spend big bucks to study us. They research our diets. They ask us questions. They chart our buying habits. They have found that the best-selling products “pop” in the mouth, with a burst of flavor that quickly fades, leaving the brain wanting more. Food companies know how we like most foods. They know how crunchy we like our chips. They know how thick we want our doughnut glaze. They know how to make food taste great—maybe too great. 

Many of the foods we love most are the least healthy. We love chips that are full of fat and salt. We love cookies, yogurts, and drinks packed with sugar. Some experts believe food companies deliberately make foods that are almost impossible to resist. Studies show that certain textures matched with just the right flavor confuse our body’s system for knowing when we’re full. So we just keep eating. This means more money for food companies. And it means more health problems for us—like obesity or illnesses such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

Most food companies say they’re just doing their job. They make foods that taste great. Isn’t it up to us to know when we’ve had enough? 

Of course it is. 

Those chips we’ve been munching on? We know we need to stop. We’ve had way too many.

But they taste so good. Maybe we’ll have just a few more.

Flavorists know how taste works. And food companies know which tastes will sell best. How do they know? They spend big bucks to study us. They research our diets. They ask us questions. Food companies know how we like most foods. They know how crunchy we like our chips. They know how thick we want our doughnut glaze. They know how to make food taste great. Maybe too great.

Many of the foods we love most are the least healthy. We love chips that are full of fat and salt. We love cookies, yogurts, and drinks packed with sugar. Some experts believe food companies aim to make foods nearly impossible to resist. Studies show that putting certain textures and flavors together confuses our bodies. We no longer know when we’re full. So we just keep eating. This means more money for food companies. And it means more health problems for us—like obesity and illnesses such as heart disease.

Most food companies say they’re just doing their job. They make foods that taste great. It’s up to us to know when we’ve had enough, right?

Of course it is.

Those chips we’ve been munching on? We know we need to stop. We’ve had way too many.

But they taste so good. Maybe we’ll have just a few more.

Love at First Crunch 

Meet the man behind one of our favorite snacks. 

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The story goes something like this: In the summer of 1853, a chef named George Crum was cooking up french fries at a restaurant in Saratoga Springs, New York. A customer sent his fries back to the kitchen, complaining that they were too thick and soggy. 

Crum decided to teach this picky customer a lesson. So he sliced up potatoes as thin as he could and fried them to a hard, brown crisp. He was sure they would be inedible.

Here’s the story: It was the summer of 1853. A chef named George Crum was cooking up french fries at a restaurant in Saratoga Springs, New York. A customer sent his fries back to the kitchen. He complained that they were too thick and soggy.

Crum decided to teach this picky customer a lesson. He sliced up potatoes as thin as he could. Then he fried them to a hard, brown crisp. He was sure they would be terrible.

But something surprising happened: The customer didn’t turn up his nose at these crunchy fried potatoes. In fact, he gobbled up the delicious new treat. Other diners began to ask for them too. Soon, the restaurant was known for its famous “Saratoga Chips.” 

History experts aren’t sure whether this tale is 100 percent true, or even that Crum was the first person to invent potato chips. But he definitely helped make them popular in the U.S. And more than 150 years later, potato chips are still one of America’s favorite snacks. 

But something surprising happened. The customer didn’t turn up his nose at these crunchy fried potatoes. In fact, he gobbled up the delicious new treat. Other diners began to ask for them too. Soon, the restaurant was known for its famous “Saratoga Chips.”

History experts aren’t sure whether this tale is totally true. Maybe Crum wasn’t even the first person to invent potato chips. But he definitely helped make them popular in the U.S. And more than 150 years later, potato chips are still one of America’s favorite snacks.

Crunch Craving

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It’s not surprising that Crum’s creation became such a hit. Research shows that humans naturally crave noisy, crunchy foods.

Why? Some scientists think it’s because crunchy foods tend to be fresh. Think of the satisfying snap you hear when you bite into a stalk of celery or a crisp apple. The crunchiness of fruits and vegetables helped tell our early human ancestors that these foods were fresh and healthy. And even though potato chips aren’t very nutritious, they still appeal to our brain’s built-in love of crunch.

Today, food companies research and experiment to create the perfect crunchiness. They’ve figured out exactly how much tooth pressure it should take to crush a chip. They’ve calculated how loud the sound is. (It can reach 63 decibels—as loud as a washing machine.) They’ve designed the bag to keep chips crispy for as long as possible.

So the next time you tear into a bag of chips, you can think about the work that went into each crunch. And in between noisy mouthfuls, you can thank George Crum.

It’s not surprising that Crum’s creation became a hit. Research shows that humans naturally crave noisy, crunchy foods.

Why? Some scientists think it’s because crunchy foods tend to be fresh. Think of the nice snap you hear when you bite into a stalk of celery or a crisp apple. This crunchiness helped tell humans of long ago that these foods were fresh and healthy. Potato chips aren’t very nutritious. But our brains still love that crunch.

Today, food companies experiment to create the perfect crunchiness. They’ve figured out exactly how hard your teeth should push to crush a chip. They’ve measured how loud the sound is. (It can be as loud as a washing machine.) They’ve designed the bag to keep chips crispy for as long as possible.

So the next time you tear into a bag of chips, think about the work that went into each crunch. And in between noisy mouthfuls, you can thank George Crum.

This article was originally published in the December 2020 / January 2021 issue.

This article was originally published in the December 2020 / January 2021 issue.

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Can't-Miss Teaching Extras
Watch a video.

Flavor science isn’t the only potato-chip technology that’s advanced over the years. The chip manufacturing process has also gotten more hi-tech. Watch the process from start to finish in this fascinating video from NPR.

Meet a flavorist.

In this three-minute video, take a trip to the laboratory of International Flavors and Fragrances. There, you’ll meet Marie Wright, a flavorist, and watch as she works to create the perfect flavor of mac and cheese. 

Learn how we taste.

This webpage from KidsHealth explains in kid-friendly language how taste buds work. The site also includes two fun and easy experiments, one about the role of saliva in taste and another on the role of the nose.

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vocabulary, author’s craft, cause and effect, supporting details, key idea, inference, analyzing, evaluating, explanatory and opinion writing