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What Drives Our Obsession with Crave & Craze-Worthy Foods?

Aug 11, 2017 01:00PM ● By Cate Reynolds

Consumers needed their Sprinkles so badly the company conceived the first of its kind Cupcake ATM—now available in 15 locations across the U.S. Photo courtesy of Sprinkles Cupcakes.

I Gotta Have One!

We deep-dive into the world of crave and craze-worthy foods, and what drives our obsession with them.

By Lisa J. Gotto

The year: 2006. The place: Beverly Hills, California. The obsession: a Sprinkles cupcake. This was my quest on one of my semi-regular visits to Southern California, where my brother, Joe, lives. So like a good host, up “The 5” Joe drove from his home in Laguna Niguel, so we could seek out the just-turned iconic cupcake, and revel in all of its luscious frosted glory.

After the hour drive and the nearly hour wait in line, I dolled out a solid $6 and only then was able to hold the object of my affection in my hands. It came in its own cupcake-sized baker’s box. While there were already dozens of iterations of this celebrity sought-after confection, I went with the line’s signature flavor and look, the red velvet with its trademark modern red and light green dot on top of the oh-so-rich cream cheese frosting. We ran back to the car and it took everything in me NOT to devour that lavish looking dessert right there on “The 5”.

Make no mistake, this was a very good cupcake, but after eating it I had to wonder why I was so obsessed with having it in the first place?

The Science

So what takes a seemingly simple food like a cupcake to the crave-worthy level where people are willing to stand in long lines and drive distances to get it?

To confirm our assumption that the recipe for any frenzied food fad includes three key ingredients: A universally well-liked staple food, a wealth of marketing know-how, and copious numbers of hungry consumers, we asked a physician with a special interest in the food cultures, Dr. Francisca Bruney of The University of Maryland Baltimore Washington Medical Center, for her take on our obsession-based food culture.

Bruney, who has taken her interest in food to a global level and has traveled the world for the last four years to study how cultures influence foods, says the allure of food goes way beyond coincidence.

“...It involves the specific and intentional manipulation of ingredients and targeted packaging by food engineers.”

Wow! Food engineers? Yes, Bruney explains that food manufacturers oftentimes employ a process known as food optimization, where engineers and market analysts work to alter variables such as sugar, salt, and color with the purpose of developing the most perfect version of any food.

In fact, the two key terms the food industry uses when studying ingredient impact and selection are “sensory specific satiety” and the “bliss point.”

Okay, so maybe I know a few things about my cupcake adventure now, I definitely encountered a feeling of “bliss” while and after eating it.

The concept of micro-managing or tweaking ingredients is particularly interesting when it comes to what we crave, especially when you consider that we have a tendency to repeat our food experiences.

Dr. Howard Moskowitz, a Harvard-educated experimental psychologist, is well known in the spaghetti sauce industry for his work with Prego and his famous quote, “There is no perfect spaghetti sauce. There are perfect spaghetti sauces.”

This phrase was said to have revolutionized the spaghetti sauce industry by providing variety and avoiding “sensory specific satiety.” The result was an estimated $600 million in sales over 10 years from one line of chunky spaghetti sauce alone.

“This concept of varying the amount of ingredients is what is driving the food industry/ market currently. It is very evident when looking at restaurants such as Five Guys, Dunkin Donuts, Starbucks, and Panera Bread,” Bruney says. “The offering of options decreases consumer fatigue. If you think of it, Starbucks is just coffee with over 80,000 possible drink combinations! When will you have tried every variation?”

Okay, so that’s why there were so many kinds of Sprinkles Cupcakes. Today, you can enjoy dozens of variations of their recipe; their latest—the Black Velvet Cupcake.

If anyone perfected the art of ingredient tweaking it could be Fractured Prune. If you’re even a casual visitor to Ocean City, Maryland, you are already familiar with Fractured Prune doughnuts. (Love the way they still spell the word correctly, D-O-U-G-H-N-U-T.) Their choice of staple, the doughnut, provided a doughy, sweet foundation to build on and then a twist on variety began. First, by always serving a fresh, hot doughnut with a made-to-order glaze and then by letting you choose the ingredients, or toppings, that you want to eat on any particular day, thus Fractured Prune created their own way to avoid sensory specific satiety.
Fractured Prune Doughnuts does a great job defining the customer bliss point. // Photo by Tony Lewis, Jr.

Clearly they have been doing something right—for more than 37 years, Fractured Prune has been a crave-worthy confection worthy of its own lines to stand in and now a collection of locations, across the U.S. that includes the greater Annapolis area.

The Competition

There was something else I realized about my cupcake adventure; I wanted to say I had one—that I tried it, I know what it tastes like, and that it wasn’t easy to get. So what was that all about?

Surely you have noticed the need within our food culture to challenge one’s self when it comes to eating. Whether it’s how much food, how spicy the food is, or what it took to get it, there seems to be aspects of competition going on at the table, as well.

Does “Man V. Food” ring any bells? It certainly does for Ted Levitt of the venerable Main Street Annapolis eatery, Chick & Ruth’s Delly. Man V. Food is one of many culinary-based shows on cable these days and one Levitt is particularly familiar with because he was on the show in 2012. The star however, was neither he nor the show’s front man and master eater at the time, Adam Richman; rather it was the deli’s long-standing “Colossal Food Challenge,” which pits one’s appetite against a 1.5 pound burger or deli sandwich and a six-pound milkshake.

“There’s a competition element [with food] now, that we didn’t have growing up,” says Levitt, —a ‘If he can do it, I can do it,’ thing.”
Are you up for the 6-Pound Colossal Shake Challenge at Chick & Ruth’s Delly?  //  Photo by Tony Lewis, Jr.

At Chick & Ruth’s if you complete the challenge (you have one hour) you get a t-shirt and a spot on the Colossal Hall of Fame page on their website with your photo. Talk about a great marketing idea that keeps people coming back!

Not one to rest on his laurels, Levitt has also perfected a three-pound burger for patrons to take the challenge with. Up for it? 
It takes 6 big beef patties to create the 3 lb. Colossal Burger Challenge at Chick & Ruth’s Delly! // Photo by Tony Lewis, Jr.

But maybe you’re not up for lots of meat. Perhaps your obsession is with lots of heat! Well, you are not alone. Does anything even come without sriracha sauce on it anymore? Hot sauces, an ever-growing industry (up 150 percent since the year 2000, according to Quartz Media) may be capitalizing on the challenge craze even if the challenge is only with yourself and how hot you can stand it. If you’re in the painfully hot category you may be practicing “benign masochism,” says Bruney.

“The predilection for spicy foods is not only cultural, but is also defined as ‘benign masochism,’ a phrase coined by Dr. Paul Rozin, a Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania. ” The term is used to describe the willingness some people have to try something dangerous as long as they are assured no harm will come to them. Rozin noted a connection between liking roller coasters and the liking of spicy foods, for instance.

“Later, Dr. John Hayes at Pennsylvania State University published an article that showed that personality seemed to be responsible for the desire for spice. For instance, persons who were more adventure-seeking and enjoyed exploration were more likely to enjoy spicier foods,” Bruney says.

Whatever the motivation to seek the heat, the trend to spice things up has created a billion dollar a year industry for the hot sauce business.


Walk around your local grocer and you will probably notice certain foods just because they are trending and retailers want to be able to satisfy whatever their customers might be craving. Our local Whole Foods is no exception. On a recent trip to the Towne Centre location I was joined by the store’s marketing and community liaison, Martel Kelleher.

So what foods are we taking home to eat? While seasonal produce is always popular, says Kelleher, there is now a need to make something good even better. Zucchini noodles, she says, are a great example, as she shows me two display cases: one with the ever-popular zucchini variety and the other popping with the colors of carrot, beet, and squash variations.

“Basically everything you can make a noodle out of,” she said. Turn and walk across the aisle and you will see the same theme with a different vegetable. This time it’s cauliflower. Not only is ricing it now a trend, the spring months afford you to do so in a rainbow of colors from yellow to purple to dark green. (All taste the same, she said, with the exception of the dark green, or Romanesco variety, which has a sweeter, lighter flavor.)

With the consumption of red meats trending down we head to the vegan case and Kellerher points to a product they cannot stock fast enough especially with summer’s cookout season upon us, a plant-based burger patty from Beyond Meat. This product, she says, is actually very popular with non-vegans, too, those who do enjoy the taste and mouth-feel of beef but are trying to be more health or socially conscious.
Mochi ice cream balls from California with love. // Photo courtesy of Whole Foods Market.

A trip to the bakery follows. In a self-serve refrigerated unit next to the pastry case sits a product that Kelleher says is a challenge to keep in the store. Beyond the frosty glass are boxes with pastel-colored confections not quite the size of tennis balls, but bigger than golf balls. Clearly, they are not pastries of any sort, yet they are coated with a light confectionary-like sugar. They are called “Mochi” and they are a Japanese-inspired creation. The flavor signs read: vanilla, chocolate, coffee, and green tea among others. For the ice cream lovers among us, these hand-held treats seem to be the M&M of the frozen world because it’s ice cream you can eat without a dish or cone, essentially with your hands.

So obsessed are Whole Foods shoppers with this twist on self-serve ice cream, there are just a few left to choose from until the next shipment arrives from California.

And while we’re near the frozen foods, what could be more on-trend than a tall, cool smoothie? The answer may surprise you. Kelleher says while the smoothie remains extremely popular, the delivery method has changed as shoppers are flipping out for smoothie bowls. You can buy the standard ingredients pre-packaged and just embellish with your own fruits, seeds, nuts, and granola for toppings. The yogurt-infused base is a bit thicker than a smoothie so the contents are spoon-worthy, as well as swoon-worthy.

Kelleher says the key to this meal is to not just have it taste good, but it should look pretty. “Like food art,” she says. “Customers actually tag me in their Instagram posts when they have created a really cool bowl and want to show me.”
The anti-oxidant rich Acai berry bowl takes the smoothie to the next level. // Photo courtesy of Whole Foods Market.

Finally, it seems that food that is pretty as a picture is playing a primary role in our food-obsessed culture and is certainly helping to drive the trends. One of the biggest at the time of this writing is “Unicorn food,” and we happened to see an example of that in the pastry case—a rainbow colored cupcake adorned with sugar sparkles.

“Unicorn food demonstrates the penetrable and far reaching powers of social media. This pastel-colored, glitter and sparkle food-dyeing trend has now even infiltrated Starbucks and all things Ramen,” explains Bruney. “It is chronicled as the new millennial obsession that has been trending since 2016…. and is regarded as the food industry’s innovative response to the decline in estimated consumption of sugar by nearly 14 percent since 1999, per the U.S. Department of Agriculture.”
Social media also gives the food industry valuable insights regarding audience interest allowing for the assessment of public opinion on what’s trending and provides brand exposure and the ability to reach target audiences.

Overall, social media plays a dynamic role in the food industry, as a marketing platform that is usually consumer driven, says Bruney. “For instance, Yelp reviews, vlogging, blogging, Instagram, Facebook ads, et cetera, provide an amazing platform for consumers to rate and review foods they like or dislike—with hashtags such as ‘food porn’ trending.”

Social media also gives the food industry valuable insights regarding audience interest allowing for the assessment of public opinion on what’s trending and provides brand exposure and the ability to reach target audiences. That said, it looks as though our relationship with food and all the ways we make it, change it, and engage around it will have us always looking for the next great taste trend.

Perhaps I understand better now why I needed that Sprinkles Cupcake—I know that if there had been an Instagram in 2006, there would have been countless others who needed a Sprinkles Cupcake, too, because I definitely would have posted that.