C&B Notes

A Cheesy Moat

To appropriately assess the sustainability of a company’s competitive advantages, one must understand why the company’s customers make their decisions to buy and whether the economic, physical, emotional, and psychological factors at play make these decisions likely to be repeated.  Frito-Lay’s Doritos enjoys a deep and wide moat thanks to its brand, but its popularity begins with a unique food formulation that tends to make consumers avid fans.

The inventor of Doritos envisioned this snack in 1964 as a marketing powerhouse that could deliver endless varieties of new flavors.  But none of the formulations would surpass Nacho Cheese, whose irresistible taste sent Doritos into the processed food hall of fame, and more recently into a partnership with Taco Bell.  I visited Steven A. Witherly, a food scientist who wrote an insider’s guide, “Why Humans Like Junk Food,” and we raided his lab to taste and experiment our way through the psychobiology of what makes Nacho Cheese Doritos so alluring.

When fat-laden snacks melt in the mouth, the brain thinks that the calories have disappeared, too, in what food scientists call “vanishing caloric density.”  This tends to delay the feeling of fullness…

Mr. Witherly says that to maximize the pleasure in snacks, the goal is to deliver half the calories through fat, and Nacho Cheese Doritos hit this mark precisely.  Scientists say fat is experienced not as a basic taste like sweetness or bitterness, but rather as a sensation, with a mouth feel that has all the power of sugar or salt.  Fat in food is detected by the trigeminal nerve, which conveys the signal straight to the brain’s pleasure center…

The blend of ingredients in Nacho Cheese is given one of the finest grinds in food processing: flour grinding, which creates a powder that fills every nook and cranny on the chip.  This maximizes the amount that will contact saliva.  Intentional or not, one byproduct is the powder left on your fingers…

By itself, monosodium glutamate has little taste.  But when we tried this white powder mixed with salt, we could almost feel our brains start to sizzle.  Despite complaints that it has side effects, MSG is still widely used in processed foods because it powers up other flavors, especially savory ones…

Despite the powerful tastes in Nacho Cheese, the Doritos formula balances them so well that no single flavor lingers in the mind after you’ve eaten a chip.  This avoids what food scientists call “sensory specific satiety,” or the feeling of fullness caused by a dominant flavor…