Food trends tend to come and go pretty quickly: the humble prawn cocktail, SPAM, foam on everything, rainbow-dyed bagels. But since it was invented some 40 years ago, the world’s obsession with salted caramel has showed no sign of waning. And now researchers think they know why.
It’s a phenomenon they’ve deemed “hedonistic escalation.”
Essentially, the complex mix of flavours present in salted caramel triggers a very different response in the brain than most foods. Usually, the more you eat, the fuller you feel. But with salted caramel, it’s the opposite—each bite leaves you wanting more.
“Food engineers and scientists know that when you put salty and sweet and fatty flavours into food you are going to get a winner,” said associate professor Cammy Crolic of Oxford University, who coined the term hedonistic escalation.
“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.”
Previous research from the University of Melbourne has shown the hypothalamus, which regulates the brain’s instinctive appetite for salt, also plays a central role in cocaine and opioid addiction. This means the drive for salt can be as powerful as an addict’s drive to score coke or heroin.
“With most foods, because our bodies are designed to seek different nutrients, we get bored of one food and seek others,” Crolic says. “With foods like salted caramel, however, the reverse happens. 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.”
This might be delicious, but it’s something that can be easily exploited by food manufacturers. Because as they say: Once you pop, you can’t stop.