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WHEN BAD FOODS TASTE GOOD

Why do foods that are bad for you taste so good? Lots of people like salads, sure, but you don’t hear them talking about "cravings" the way people wax eloquent about Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, DoveBars or Mom’s macaroni and cheese.

When it comes to comfort foods, we’re talking starch, sugar, fat or all three. It seems there are evolutionary reasons, as well as psychological and cultural ones, that we like fat and sugar, says Dr. David Klurfeld, chair of the department of nutrition and food science at Wayne State University. A sweet tooth is natural, he says, because "anything in nature that’s sweet is harmless. Anything that’s harmful is likely to be bitter or sour."

In addition, researchers think that back in cave-dwelling times, when food was scarce and we needed calories, human beings developed a preference for high-fat food. Nowadays, this preference is doing us no good.

One of the joys of fat, says Klurfeld, is its "mouth feel."

For example, high-quality chocolate "liquefies while it’s dripping down your teeth. It’s sensual."

Same for potato chips: The oil coats the inside of your mouth and leaves a prolonged aftertaste. Fat by itself, however, has very little taste. Try putting a few drops of corn oil on your tongue.

Favorite foods do seem to vary by the eater’s gender, Klurfeld says. American women like chocolate best, while men go for salt and high-fat meats.

I started out seeing sugar as a "bad food," but that wasn’t quite fair. Yes, sugar is empty calories, and can cause tooth decay. But despite the persistent belief that sugar makes children hyperactive, Klurfeld says there is no credible evidence for this myth.

"Sugar actually has a calming effect," he says. "That is well-documented. All carbohydrates have it, but sugar has a more pronounced effect because it’s absorbed more rapidly."

That’s one more reason so many people go for Little Debbies when the stress is too much. With the average American consuming more than a third of a pound of sugar a day, you’d think we’d be a lot calmer.

The usual advice on what to do about cravings for fat and sugar is to eat less, and eat sweets that are less sweet. Adam Drewnowski, formerly at the University of Michigan and now head of the University of Washington’s nutrition program, believes if we ate more flavorful chocolate, such as dark chocolate, we’d want smaller portions.

And Drewnowski has also found that infusions of opiate-blocking drugs will decrease preferences for foods high in fat and sugar.

He speculates that opiate blockers interfere with the ability to experience pleasure, including the pleasure derived from the tastes and textures of foods. But since we live to eat, not just eat to live, isn’t turning off our pleasure centers a bit drastic? –Jane Slaughter

TREATS

Crunchy granola alert! Michaelene’s Gourmet Granola, a Clarkston-based company, now has an all-organic granola. Find it on the Web at or at your favorite grocery store. … Merchant of Vino/Whole Foods Market has just renovated its Somerset Plaza store. Improvements include a coffee bar, sandwich bar and a cheese, olive and charcuterie (that’s fancy talk for cold cuts) bar, not to mention other healthy stuff. Call 248-649-9600

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