5.14 — Snacks: delight in every bite

Host Walter Isaacson and guests look at the tasty treats that have been our snacking go-tos throughout history, why we like what we like and what we can expect of snacks in the future.
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In this episode:

  • The Noisiest Chips in the World (0:00)
  • What unites all Americans? (2:52)
  • The man behind some of your favorite products (9:40)
  • A big change in the world of snacking (15:06)
  • But can you make it a chip? (19:10)
  • AI gets into the snack game (22:20)

Ask anyone their guilty pleasure, and most will come back with some variation on snacking. It’s a universal human truth that food between meals is somehow tastier. Find out when humanity started snacking, and what innovators are doing to up the snack game, on a new Trailblazers.

This episode had a small taste of snackable content. Here’s some more.

“People have always eaten between meals. You can find traces of popcorn in Incan tombs.”

— Nadia Berenstein, Award-winning food writer and historian

Guest List

  • Nadia Berenstein is a James Beard award-winning food historian who writes about science, technology, and culture in the context of food. Her specialty is flavor: flavor science, the flavor industry, and the ways that flavor additives have shaped the history of food and our own appetites and palates.
  • Howard Moskowitz is a pioneering market researcher, psychophysicist and flavor expert who’s worked with companies like PepsiCo, General Food and Kraft. Moskowitz is probably responsible for some of your favourite snacks and has helped optimize flavor profiles for everything from pickles to salad dressing. He is the scientific director for World Institute of Competitive Excellence, which he founded to help students and society through Mind Genomics.
  • Daniel Lubetzky is best known as the founder of multi-billion-dollar global health and wellness brand KIND Snacks. He is a social entrepreneur working to build bridges between people and increase appreciation for our shared humanity, author of The New York Times bestseller Do the KIND Thing and a recurring shark on Shark Tank.
  • Jason Cohen is the Founder and CEO of Analytical Flavor Systems. Analytical Flavor Systems’ Gastrograph AI technology predicts which combinations of flavors might appeal to the thousands of different palates across the global food market.
  • Heather Daniell is the founder and CEO of Satisfied Snacks. She’s developed a patent-pending binding process Satisfied Snacks uses to make its unique products including Salad as a Crisp.

Walter Isaacson:

It’s a sunny day in Monterey Park, California, in the mid 1920s and Laura Scudder is giving her employees some homework as they clock out for the day. Scudder is a plucking entrepreneur who’s recently decided to start selling snacks to motorists at her husband’s gas station. Soon after starting this new venture, she realizes that a relatively new gastronomical innovation, the salty crispy irresistible potato chip, is her best seller, but that’s where the problem begins.

Walter Isaacson:

Potato chips are sold out of large wooden barrels. They’re handy for storage, but not so great for keeping them fresh. The chips taste great straight out of the fryer, but after a couple of hours in a wood barrel they become soggy, losing that signature crunch that makes them so satisfying to eat. So Scudder makes what seems like a practical decision, but unbeknownst to her, will have a huge impact on the way people eat for decades to come. When her employees are done for the day, Scudder sends them home with sheets of wax paper and instructs them to fold and iron the wax sheets into flat bags. When they come back to work the following day, Scutter wraps a fresh batch of chips in each bag.

Walter Isaacson:

The wax paper has the miraculous effect of keeping the chips perfectly crispy and as delicious as the moment they’re fried. They’re a huge success and because their chips keep their crunch, Scudder decides to brand them, The Noisiest Chips in the World. Laura Scudder’s chip empire will eventually be sold for millions of dollars in the 1950s. But her ingenious revolution in packaging will shape the science of how we snack forever.

Walter Isaacson:

I’m Walter Isaacson, and you’re listening to Trailblazers, an original podcast from Dell Technologies.

Speaker 2:

Let’s all go to the lobby to get ourselves a treat.

Speaker 3:

What is pleasing to the eye is to be pleasing to the appetite.

Speaker 4:

Roasty toasted peanuts.

Speaker 5:

So thin, so light, so crisp.

Speaker 6:

Easy pop man, that’s real popcorn. Mmm, delicious.

Walter Isaacson:

If there’s one thing that unites Americans, it’s snacking. Whether it’s potato chips or crackers, snacking is a big business. In 2017, salty snacks alone, amounted to $27 billion in annual sales in the US. Technology has shaped the way we eat and the flavors and textures we love. But to understand how we got here, we’ve got to go back to the 19th century and the birth of modern snacking, as we know it.

Nadia Berenstein:

People have eaten between meals since time immemorial, right? You can find traces of popcorn in Incan tombs. There are pretzels throughout the Byzantine Empire.

Walter Isaacson:

Nadia Berenstein is a James Beard, award-winning flavor historian.

Nadia Berenstein:

But when we talk about snacks and what they mean to us now, snack food, I think really starts in the 19th century as part of the transformation of food and eating that happens with industrialization.

Walter Isaacson:

A newly prosperous urban class started to spend its leisure time outside the home and in mass gatherings and snack vendors followed.

Nadia Berenstein:

Potato chips, pretzels, things that are sold by street vendors, things that are sold at carnivals and world’s fairs, fairways, boardwalks, places like Coney Island. Things that are basically consumed, while people, this new mass consumer culture that’s taking shape in the 19th century, is going to places of public entertainment and amusement. So snack foods are kind of the things that you eat out there in the world away from your home. And they’re generally mass produced, they’re cheap and they’re tasty

Walter Isaacson:

At the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, the public was introduced to Cracker Jacks. 11 years later at the St. Louis Louisiana Purchase Expo, they got a taste of hot dogs, hamburgers, cotton candy, and ice cream cones. Around the same time, the National Biscuit Company, which would soon change its name to Nabisco, introduced a product that would change the industry forever. It was called Uneeda Biscuit. But it wasn’t necessarily notable because of its taste. It was significant because of its packaging. It used to be, if you wanted a cracker, you’d go down to the store and get one, literally, out of a cracker barrel. And that was a bit of a crapshoot.

Nadia Berenstein:

Sometimes they’d be stale. Sometimes they’d have bugs in them. You wouldn’t know where they came from. Nabisco sold Uneeda Biscuit as packaged in these sanitary, waxed paper sleeves that would keep out moisture and keep the crackers crisp and also free of contamination. It’s advertised with a boy in a yellow raincoat to emphasize that these crackers are being sealed off from sogginess and moisture. They’re going to arrive at your house. You can enjoy them crisp, and you can know that they’re safe and wholesome.

Walter Isaacson:

From there, it was only a short hop from Nabisco’s Uneeda Biscuits to Laura Scudder’s wax paper, potato chip bags. Packaging not only helped keep biscuits and chips fresh, it also provided valuable real estate for companies to advertise their brands. And it worked. Nabisco is still a household name and Uneeda Biscuits were only discontinued in 2009. What started out as wax paper packaging, quickly evolved as chemical science kept pace with the technological revolutions taking place in the 20th century.

Nadia Berenstein:

That was the first step in an evolution that would reach its pinnacle during the Second World War with advances in plastics. Plastics, especially polypropylene, set the stage for this kind of mass expansion of the snack food bag and the single serve bag. Plastics do a much better job than wax paper in keeping things crisp and keeping flavors inside the package and oxygen or light or things that can cause chemical changes in food that lead to off flavors and rancidity, outside of the pack. So I mean like many other things in the fifties and sixties, snacks owe a lot to plastics.

Walter Isaacson:

Plastic packaging meant that a snack’s texture and flavor could go straight from the manufacturer to the consumer’s mouth without breaking down or going stale along the way. And that influenced the very flavors that defined the American diet.

Nadia Berenstein:

Crispiness and crunchiness, these textual sensations, are really commonplace among snacks and really very easy for us to acquire. This is a technological marvel and I think something that is probably unprecedented for much of human history. Basically the package is what allows food and beverage companies to invest in designing flavors and invest in studying consumer cravings and studying consumer appetites. It makes it possible to know with some certainty, that the flavor that your flavorist designs is going to be the sensation that the consumer experiences.

Walter Isaacson:

Plastics, the rise of a youthful generation with spending money in their pockets and the burgeoning field of sensory science, created a snack food explosion following World War Two. The 1960s saw the introduction of products such as Pop-Tarts, Pringles, Ruffles Chips, and many more that are still around today. But the real explosion in snacking was yet to come and it would be caused by an entirely new approach to product development.

Howard Moskowitz:

So the year is 1967 and I’m my finishing my second year at Harvard University in the Department of Psychology.

Walter Isaacson:

Howard Moskowitz is a pioneering researcher and flavor expert who’s probably responsible for some of your favorite products. But while at Harvard in the late sixties, he was somewhat aimless. At one point, his advisor called him on the carpet.

Howard Moskowitz:

And he looked at me quite sternly and he said, “Do something where you won’t do any damage, like taste or political polling.” I went to the library and began to immediately read up on taste, happily to find that I could do my work of taste by simply making solutions of sugar and salt and acid and quinine and mixing them and asking people how strong the taste was. Well, make a long story short, I got my PhD, but I recognized that the answer was in mixtures of things, not simply the beautiful science of isolating things, but mixing tastes together.

Walter Isaacson:

Moskowitz went to work for the US army helping to design MRAs, or meals ready to eat, for personnel in the field. And it was here that he developed the idea that would define his career. Moscowitz discovered that if you added an ingredient such as sugar to a flavor profile, it would increase the product’s enjoyment level up to a certain point. After that point, more of the ingredient would cause enjoyment to go down. That peak amount became known as the bliss point. And it did not just apply to sugar, but to other flavor additives, as well. Importantly, not every person had the same bliss point. What that meant was that the perfect product might exist, but it would be different for different groups of people. Not long after PepsiCo called Moskowitz to help with their product testing. PepsiCo produces a lot of our favorite soft drinks, but they also own a huge arsenal of snack products, such as Frito-Lay Chips and Quaker Oats Granola Bars. Up until this point, most companies usually relied on pretty simple testing techniques.

Howard Moskowitz:

Pepsi was hiring companies to test product A versus product B. One of them could have been Pepsi versus Coke. Another one might well have been version A versus version B. And the key is you have to have a comparative testing and you have to beat the competitor.

Walter Isaacson:

Product designers would go back and forth until they finally designed a single product that would beat the competitor in a one-on-one test. This method was costly and time consuming. Moskowitz’s insight was define the elusive bliss point by testing multiple, sometimes even dozens, of products at a time.

Howard Moskowitz:

And I was coming in and saying, “No. Let’s make these 17 different products.” And they looked at me in horror and said, “We’re not going to make 17 different products. That’s the craziest thing we’ve ever heard. 15 of them won’t be acceptable.”

Walter Isaacson:

But eventually PepsiCo realized he was right. What they found was that there were different groups of tasters out there, each with their own bliss point. There wasn’t one perfect ideal Pepsi for everyone. Soon after, Moskowitz started doing taste analysis and product research for snacks as disparate as pickles, pizzas, potato chips, or cheese puffs.

Howard Moskowitz:

Before my work, they may have had Cheetos. But after the work that I did with all of these companies, they had a gazillion different flavors. I would show that they were the group that liked the sweet things. There was another group that liked the savory and I got the optimum formulations for each.

Walter Isaacson:

Moskowitz’s work change the snack food industry on a fundamental level. Walk into any supermarket today and you’ll see dozens of varieties of the same product, whether they’re Cheetos, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups or energy drinks. That’s his bliss point at work.

Walter Isaacson:

But as the snack food industry continued to grow in the 1980s and 90s and more and more products hit the shelves, not much attention was being paid to the effects of these products on consumer health. They were engineered to be habit forming and often full of unhealthy additives, like high fructose corn syrup. As childhood obesity started to rise and studies showed that more and more kids were getting most of their calories from junk food, one thing became clear, snacking had to change.

Daniel Lubetzky:

If you had asked me when I was a kid or even out of college, if I was going to be making food for a living, I would’ve told you, you’re crazy. I thought I was going to be a diplomat solving the Arab Israeli conflict.

Walter Isaacson:

Daniel Lubetsky is the founder of Kind Snacks. In the mid 90s, he was traveling through Israel when he came across a sun dried tomato spread that he found irresistible. That led him to start his first company PeaceWorks, which was intended to bring neighbors in conflict regions together through food and commerce. But along the way, Lubetsky stumbled across an untapped market in the snack food industry. On the road promoting PeaceWorks he was often in the need of a quick pick me up.

Daniel Lubetzky:

Pretty much all of my snacking options were full of sugar, with sugar as the first ingredient, or they tasted like astronaut food or like cardboard. And it was very hard to find a product that was wholesome and convenient that was made with ingredients that you could recognize. That’s what gave me the idea for creating Kind. The idea was to create a healthy snack that when people look at it, they know what they’re putting in their body and it leads with nutrient dense ingredients that are nourishing your body, and that are tasty. And just as close to nature as possible.

Walter Isaacson:

Founded in 2004, Kind became an on the go snacking revolution. Today, we take it for granted that even at the gas station, we can pick up a power bar made with whole ingredients and very few chemical additives. It’s an industry unto itself. But at the time, a bar made with whole nuts not packed with sugar, was an innovation. Once again, like the snack food entrepreneurs that came before him, packaging proved key to his success.

Daniel Lubetzky:

When we launched Kind, the first thing we did is design a product that was really, really premium with tree nuts, whole nuts and fruit, as compared to all of our competitors, which would start with sugar or other refined flour or chemical compound. And the second thing we did was we wanted to celebrate this product because it was whole nuts and fruits that looked like a work of art, very crafted. So we introduced clear, see-through packaging that allowed you to really look at the product that you were eating rather than an opaque rapper with some sort of stylized photo.

Walter Isaacson:

And instead of processing foods until they became unrecognizable, Kind discovered that there was value going in the other direction.

Daniel Lubetzky:

People often associate technology with commodification and artificial ingredients. And it’s accurate because for decades, food manufacturers used technology to differentiate the products from nature, and they felt that to command a premium, they really needed to take them further and further away from what you would find in nature. What we did at Kind was the precise opposite. We tried to honor nature as we found it and just use technology to reserve those natural qualities in a natural way. Like for example, when we use whole nuts and that’s why we coat them in honey, so that they can have a nice shelf life and not go stale or rancid.

Walter Isaacson:

Consumers clearly wanted what Lubetsky was selling. By 2015, Kind racked up more than half a billion dollars in US sales alone. Not only that, they paved the way for a host of other innovative companies.

Heather Daniel:

We’re actually going to leave people’s snacks for a moment and sort of jump over to some nice furry animals.

Walter Isaacson:

This is Heather Daniel. She’s the founder of Satisfied Snacks, a product that strangely enough has its roots in the stable.

Heather Daniel:

I had a horse who had dietary issues. He had stomach ulcers and he wasn’t supposed to eat very many sugars and starches. Being an organic chemist, I started nerding out, so to speak, on how feeds were made and started thinking about the fact that everything was held together with sugars and starch.

Walter Isaacson:

Daniel realized that it wasn’t just horse feed that was full of starch and sugars, but human snack food, as well. And all of those additives have a serious impact on our health.

Heather Daniel:

On the human side, sugars and starches are often the so-called empty calories, which are a causative factor in obesity and they also prejudice the flavor and nutrition profile. So for instance, sugar, you’re always going to get a sweet profile and that’s what you see in lots of today’s protein bars. And then in starch, it’s actually quite bland, so you’re always adding these powdered flavorings back to snack products.

Walter Isaacson:

Daniel used her chemistry background to develop a way to hold food together without all those harmful additives. She invented a completely new formula that can turn almost any food into something resembling a potato chip. But she wasn’t quite sure what to do with it.

Heather Daniel:

I finally turned a tomato salad into a crisp and the flavor was overwhelmingly powerful. It tasted amazing. And I thought, “Actually, you know what? This is a snack that I would love to have. Let’s go make a product line around this and a brand and go take it to people. Because this is really tasty and just a completely different type of snack food.”

Walter Isaacson:

Satisfied Snacks has a whole line of curries and salad transformed into crisps, from walnut and cauliflower vindaloo to Bombay carrot salad. They contain no high fructose corn syrup, maltodextrin, or any other additives, common to modern snack foods, but they aren’t any worse off for it. Not only that, Satisfied Snacks retain almost all of the nutritional value of the original foods they’re derived from.

Heather Daniel:

And here we are kind of actually saying, “Well, you know what? You can still have that insanely tasty, crunchy, convenient food, and we’re going to do it in a totally different, much more nutritious way.”

Walter Isaacson:

Carrot salad may be an unlikely chip flavor, but even more unusual flavors might be around the corner as AI and machine learning enter the arena of snack food development.

Jason Cohen:

I started as a professional tea taster.

Walter Isaacson:

This is Jason Cohen. He’s the Founder and CEO of Analytical Flavor Systems.

Jason Cohen:

I did my own research originally in sensory science, science of taste. And then I moved to machine learning and artificial intelligence.

Walter Isaacson:

It might seem like a leap to go from tea taster to modeling human sensory perception with AI, but that’s exactly what Cohen did. Analytical Flavor Systems GastroGraph AI Technology predicts which combination of flavors might appeal to the thousands of different pallets across the global food market.

Jason Cohen:

So, if you want to say this cookie is better than an Oreo, what do you do? You gather about a hundred people. You give them an Oreo and you give them another cookie and you say which one did they like better? Right? And that can work. But that data is not predictive, right? You’re not collecting anything in which to build a model on.

Walter Isaacson:

Remember Howard Moskowitz’s bliss point? As it turns out, there’s a lot of them and Cohen is using his Gastro Graph AI to predict bliss points for underserved or even undiscovered taste markets. But it gets even more granular than that. It used to be assumed, biologically speaking, that everyone responded to flavor in the same way. Flavor scientists thought that people develop their individual preferences based on the same response, but that’s not how we operate.

Jason Cohen:

What the newest science is showing us is just like different individuals can have different response to cilantro, some people taste it as beautiful and herbal and nice and some people think that it tastes like soap. That is true for hundreds of thousands of compounds at various concentrations that are found in food products throughout the world. And sometimes it’s not as stark as beautiful and floral versus soap, but it can absolutely be as impactful in the development of products based on genetics and experiential factors.

Walter Isaacson:

Back in the 1980s, Howard Moscowitz’s big insight was to systematically test dozens of flavors against each other instead of just one or two. But with the power of big data now at our fingertips, flavors can be mixed and analyze without ever stepping into a product lab.

Jason Cohen:

What our algorithms do is it looks for things like unidentified flavors. So if you taste a chip product, you couldn’t possibly taste every single flavor that was in that product, right? You might be able to tell us five or 10 things that you were able to identify, but there could be another 20 or 30 or 40 or 50 things that you were unable to identify. And from there, what we do is we decompose that flavor profile. We say that this chip is X percent corn flavor, X percent salt flavor, Y percent roasted flavor. And from there, what we do is we say, “What flavors could we add? What happens if we double the amount of salt? What happens if we add sugar to the chip? What happens if we subtract a flavor.” We can actually transform that chip without any further wet chemistry or formulation or tasting. We can do this all algorithmically.

Walter Isaacson:

Gastro Graph AI has been used to translate products from one culture to another, such as a best selling Mexican corn chip that was having trouble making inroads in the US market. By suddenly changing the recipe to appeal to US pallets, they were able to make it a hit. And it goes beyond just tweaking products. Analytical Flavor Systems has begun to create entirely new products from scratch based on flavor combinations it’s software thinks up.

Jason Cohen:

It’ll come up with some really shocking things. We were recently looking at some snack foods in China, and it said to add dry orange peel, a common spice in China. Doenjang which is that fermented soybean paste, and Perilla oil, almost tastes like Sesame oil. And everyone who saw that, who looked at that type of optimization said, “Wow, all right, that looks pretty good.”

Walter Isaacson:

The future of snack flavors may come as much from software as from the kitchen. But the truth is snack foods have always been on the forefront of gastronomic innovation. Flavor historian, Nadia Berenstein.

Nadia Berenstein:

A snack is a place where people feel comfortable going for flavor experimentation to try something new, to try something that really tastes different. Snacks are priming our pallets to expect more. And I think that you see this playing out, not just among snack food eaters, but everywhere that people care about food in culture. Whether we’re talking about fast food or some hot new restaurant, people have become these flavors seekers. And the sensory intense, personalized, distinctive, sensory experience provided by commercial snack foods, have allowed us to begin imagining in this way,

Walter Isaacson:

Snacking isn’t going away. If anything, it’s surging with some figures showing a 60% increase in the purchase of snack food during COVID. And while many are buying more nutritious alternatives, blockbuster products such as Cheetos and Doritos, have seen the largest upticks in sales. Snack food will always be a little bit of a guilty pleasure, but the future holds the promise of alternatives that are healthy and delicious while featuring flavor combinations that most of us could never imagine. And that’s a tasty prospect.

Walter Isaacson:

I’m Walter Isaacson, and you’ve been listening to Trailblazers, an original podcast from Dell technologies. If you’d like to learn more about any of the guests in today’s episode, please visit delltechnologies.com/trailblazers. Thanks for listening.