This is How Food Manufacturers and Drug Developers Evaluate Products: What You Need To Know


This is How Food Manufacturers and Drug Developers Evaluate Products: What You Need To Know, Lynn R Webster, MD, @lynnrwebstermd

A recent CNN article written by Lisa Drayer describes the techniques that food manufacturers use to develop foods that will be more desirable and, thus, more marketable. There’s a wonderful book on the topic called Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss.

Both Drayer and Moss agree that the nutritional needs of consumers are beside the point. Selling the most food is food manufacturers’ primary goal. As I read this article, I discovered an odd parallel between that and what I do on a daily basis, as a researcher, in studying the abuse potential of drugs.

Hook Consumers, Not Patients

Food companies try to develop foods that people “like.” Conversely, drug researchers try to reduce “liking” properties of drugs.

The article says, “It’s human nature for consumers to develop habits and seek out foods that satisfy our intense cravings. And so [food] companies create products that meet people’s sensory needs.”

Similarly, it is human nature for people to seek rewarding substances. Analgesics are supposed to be rewarding, but not in the same way as food. If analgesics reward people in the same way as a bag of potato chips or a bottle of soda pop rewards them, it is a problem.

The only reward that an analgesic is supposed to provide is relief of pain. However, many medications, particularly opioids, stimulate the same centers of the brain that produce rewards from food even as they provide pain relief. Drug researchers want to develop drugs that can relieve pain without providing unwanted rewards that can lead to addiction.

In other words, pharmaceutical companies would like to create pain medications that will not get patients high. That would reduce the risk of using them for non-medical purposes.

Similar Techniques but Different Goals

Food companies run tests to determine how much a person “likes” a product. Drug companies do the same thing by conducting human abuse potential studies, because “liking” is an effect that can lead to an addiction, whether it’s for ingesting a food or a drug.

Food companies will add sugar, fats, or salt to increase the “liking” of a product. When a food product’s ingredients are tweaked to be the most satisfying, food developers say that it has reached the “bliss point.”

The primary goal of human abuse potential studies is to determine the maximum “liking” of the drug. This is called the Emax, or the maximum “liking,” effect. Emax and “bliss point” are analogous endpoints, but they have different meanings.

Finding a food’s bliss point is obviously a desirable goal for a food company. But, it may not be the best thing for the consumer who has to deal with the consequences of ingesting too much salt, sugar, and fat. In addition, once food manufacturers find that bliss point, they have a food that entices buyers to consume too much of it. In a sense, they have created an addiction to their product.

For example, people may buy fast food because they crave the monosodium glutamate in the fries rather than because they are hungry. That is a form of behavioral and pharmacologic addiction. What’s good for the food manufacturer may not be in the best interest of the consumer.

Abuse Deterrent Technology Minimizes the Emax

On the other hand, drug companies want to minimize Emax, because strong “liking” could lead to a substance use disorder with the drug or even, in extreme cases, death. Highly rewarding drugs have a significant “bliss point,” in food developers’ lexicon.

Today, drug formulations are being developed with abuse deterrent technology. The goal is to create a drug with the desirable therapeutic effects that lacks rewarding properties and minimizes the Emax, or bliss point.

The lesson is that food developers and pharmaceutical companies are both using the reward centers of our brain to guide development of their products. Food developers are trying to create, and then feed, our cravings. The drug companies, by contrast, are trying to provide therapeutic benefits to consumers while minimizing the rewarding properties of the drug.


Purchase my book, The Painful Truth: What Chronic Pain Is Really Like and Why It Matters to Each of Us (available on Amazon), or read a free excerpt here.

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Copyright 2016, Lynn Webster, MD




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