If there ever were a positive outcome that the COVID-19 pandemic spread, that would be the value-changed shopping pattern of consumers seeking mental balance through ‘comfort foods’ as something connected to physical health during challenging times.
Food positively influencing human morale for elevating indulgence through exciting flavors and intriguing textures is known as ‘comfort food.’ For some, comfort food can be a slice of pizza; for others, butter cookies, strawberry ice cream, or crème caramel. Even if most comfort foods are unhealthy for their intricacy of ultra-processed ingredients, they raised the rank to better-for-you alternatives in the last years, setting out a trend that COVID-19 just contributed to accommodate and accelerate.
Chocolate, for instance, represents one of the strongest comfort foods people craved more during the pandemic. While extra inclusions like nuts, fruits, and herbs remain big favorites among gourmet chocolate consumers, there’s a subtle but huge one that matches subconscious cravings with unaltered success: sea salt.
And it’s not marketing but neuroscience to reveal the tempting nature of salted chocolate as a big hit for a broad share of tasters. Opposite to nutty, fruity, and floral flavors that immediately sound a fit with chocolate meltiness and sweetness, saltiness is an element surprising enough to lure chocolate consumers into something less expected to pair with a product made of cacao mass, cocoa butter, and sugar. The complexity that results from the contrast of salty and sweet notes and textures in sea salt chocolate takes our taste buds to a different level to keep coming back for more.
Specifically, what makes a light pinch of sea salt in chocolate such an irresistible and evergreen addition?
The “Bliss Point”: a Magical Combination of Fat, Sugar, and Salt to Engineer Craveable Food
Humans have had a long and beneficial relationship with fat, sugar, and salt that dates back to the species’ origin. Fats of various types represent an energetic reservoir for the body, help absorb essential vitamins for health maintenance, and protect against dementia by regenerating brain neurons’ sheath. Sugar provides immediate energy for physical and mental activity, while a little salt is essential for fluid balance.
Over time, food science discovered these three combined ingredients’ magical properties to maneuver and engineer the ideal appetite for soldiers vulnerable to stressful situations like those on the field. As a result of their ability to add a magical twist to a vast array of foods—ranging from fried chips and sliced cheese to savory cookies and extruded snacks—fat, sugar, and salt went to be associated with comforting memories from our youth. In contrast, they act as a triggered addiction. (If you are familiar with a particular slogan, ‘Once You Pop, You Can’t Stop‘ says it all!)
The addiction elicited by the co-presence of fat, sugar, and salt in foods was first pioneered in the 1950s by American psychophysicist Howard Moskowitz, who termed the powerful effect of the triad combination ‘bliss point.’ The bliss point of processed food is when food reaches the level of being as delicious as possible, yet never running a peak of satisfaction that would stop asking for more. Moskowitz’s work was influenced by his early professional years at the United States Army Natick Soldier Research, developing the perfect Meals, Ready-to-Eat (MRE) that soldiers would unconsciously finish consuming.
Over the decades, the downside of tricking the bliss point revealed its evil nature for being geared to bring more harm than good to people’s health. As interest and consumption of instantly-rewarding foods surged, healthier staples such as fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains began to sink, proportionally with the incidence of overweight and obesity increasing at concerning rates. Bliss-point-designed foods have the power to hijack the brain’s reward system by promoting endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin release, thus literally making them an addictive substance that overrides the sense of satiety as a drug does that of behavioral restraint.
So, is the demonization of fat, sugar, and salt the only way to curb overconsumption and dependency on craveable foods? Certainly not if a more holistic approach to balanced nutrition without indulgence loss can limit and strategize the proportions of fat, sugar, and salt in food to achieve bliss points accustoming the palate to healthier boundaries.
Reaching Healthier Bliss Points through Cacao Flavors, Texture Contrasts, and Flavored Salts in Fine Chocolate
High-quality fine chocolate, made with specialty cacao and natural ingredients, could ideally be recognized as ‘healthy comfort food’ for the variety of flavor experiences it brings with contained sugar contents and optional gourmet additions like sea salt.
Fine flavor cacao doesn’t need to be alkalized or added as a powder to chocolate to minimize nasty off-flavors from an uneven and superficial process because it already contains the most varied bouquet of aromatics, ranging from tropical fruit to nutty, floral, and spicy notes. In comparison to mass-premium products available in the confectionery aisle of a grocery store, fine chocolate is not only naturally high in cacao. The cacao used for fine chocolate is the best on the market, harvested and processed with care from farm to bar and in an ethical trade that incentivizes farmers’ best practices by rewarding a premium typically 2-5 times greater than the price paid for bulk cacao.
Besides the richer chocolate flavor profile, fine chocolate can count on texture contrasts by adding optional ingredients like sea salt and cacao nibs (the broken pieces of a cacao bean before being turned into chocolate.) For example, the crispy crunch conferred by the cacao nibs versus the slow melt of the fruity Madagascan cacao in this Beyond Good dark chocolate forms an irresistible contrast, further expanded by sea salt.
(Warning! You would need to break a few squares and then set aside the rest of the bar before tasting the chocolate because the combo of flavors and texture works as a powerful addiction!)
Additionally, sea salt may not mean just that in fine chocolate, but something characterized by a specific origin or flavor. The Artisan Salt Company, for example, provides creative and innovative specialty food makers with a plethora of single-origin or flavored gourmet salts, such as Fine Hawaiian Red, French Fleur de Sel, Mediterranean Sel de Mer, Chardonnay Oak Smoked Fumée de Sel, or Tropical Flower of Bali.
For those sticking to the unflavored and pure thing, adding sea salt to fine and ethical chocolate is already a noble inclusion. The first human civilization prized salt as one of the most special seasonings and preservatives to add to food since the dawn of time, dating as far back as 6050 BC.
Used as a part of Egyptian religious offerings and traded between the Phoenicians and their Mediterranean empire, salt and history have been inextricably intertwined for millennia.
The word ‘salary’ is derived from the word ‘salt.’ Salt was highly valued and historically used as a trade and currency method. The term ‘salad’ also originated from ‘salt’ and began with the early Romans seasoning their leafy greens and vegetables. Undeniably, salt’s history is both broad and unique, leaving its indelible mark in cultures across the globe. Salt’s ability to preserve food was a founding contributor to the development of civilization. It helped eliminate dependence on seasonal food availability and made it possible to transport food over large distances.
How do you like salt in chocolate? Have you ever heard of the bliss point power of fat, sugar, and salt in creating craveable foods?