• What makes chips and sauce so compelling? (Getty Images / Dasar)Source: Getty Images / Dasar
We all know that a bucket of hot chips, showered in salt and sauce, isn't a healthy food choice. But why is it so hard to resist?
Yasmin Noone

26 Sep 2019 - 1:31 PM  UPDATED 26 Sep 2019 - 1:47 PM

Nothing beats the feeling you get when you devour a freshly cooked batch of hot chips, sprinkled with salt and slashed with sauce, during a celebratory weekend event or sporting grand final.

Even though chips (or French fries) aren’t the healthiest choice of food, they really are delicious, especially when they’re laced with salt and your sauce of choice.

Senior Lecturer in Deakin’s Centre of Advanced Sensory Science, Dr Gie Liem, tells SBS it’s the contrasting texture of the outside layer and interior flesh of the hot chip that makes it so irresistible to people of all cultures around the world.

“Texture plays a very important role in why we accept or reject food,” says Dr Liem. “We find that crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside is one of the texture combinations that is universally liked across all cultures. It’s also a key characteristic of good hot chips and another footy favourite, the meat pie.”

“We find that crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside is one of the texture combinations that is universally liked across all cultures." 

Dr Liem says our preference for hot chips has been determined by evolutionary factors. This is because back in hunter-gatherer times crunchy textures were used to identify whether food was okay to eat or not.

“A lot of fruit and vegetables are crunchy on the outside when ready for consumption. When they’re too hard to bite into it means they’re not quite ready to eat and when they’re too soft then that means they’re overripe. So in that way ‘crunchy’ can be like the Goldilocks of food textures, it tells us something is just right.”

A German-led study, published in Cell Metabolism in 2018, offers another reason to explain our hot chip fascination.

The research shows that foods containing both fat and carbs hijack our inborn signals governing food consumption, telling our brain to choose the fatty carby combination food – like hot, greasy chips – over the carb-laden or fatty meal.

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But why do we add salt and sauce to chips?

Dr Liem explains that our preference for sweet flavours is in-built from the moment we come into this world. This explains why many children like the sweet, sugary varieties of tomato sauce from a very young age.

“The other taste preference that isn’t inborn but starts when we are very young without prior exposure is a preference for salt,” he says.  

"These two tastes – sweet and salt – reflect what we need to survive. Sweet flavours may give you energy to survive and salt or sodium is absolutely necessary for cells to function.”

He says these two preferences stay with us throughout the course of our lifetime. However, whether or not these preferences increase or decrease throughout childhood and into adulthood depends on our diet.

A study published in the journal Appetite in 1982 demonstrated how our preference for sweet flavours can notably increase just months after birth, if we're fed sugary solutions. Researchers studied 199 babies at birth and 140 infants at six months old. At six months, researchers analysed the difference in taste preferences between infants fed sweetened water and those who weren't. The results showed that drinking sweetened water at infancy heightened the preference for sweet flavours. 

"These two tastes – sweet and salt – reflect what we need to survive. Sweet flavours may give you energy to survive and salt or sodium is absolutely necessary for cells to function.”

How do you explain why we like different sauces?

Exposure to various flavours - sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami - throughout our life course influences what you like to eat today. “The more exposure you have to something, the more you like it," explains Dr Liem. 

He explains that people of different cultures who grow up in different locations where foods vary according to local traditions, supply and demand, farming methods and weather, will most likely favour different foods and flavours. That means when it comes to what sauce you put on your chips, your culture matters.

“While tomato sauce is popular here in Australia and in the USA, vinegar is much more popular in the UK. Mayonnaise in more popular on chips in France, Belgium and the Netherlands, while it's curry sauce in Germany, or gravy and curds in Canada.”

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Think golden fries, topped with a thick, mild curry sauce. And possibly melty, gooey cheese.

But how do we know our preference for tomato sauce over mayonnaise on our chips is down to environmental reasons, such as repeat exposure, and not our genes?

“Think about people who have differences in their genetic background but grow up in Australia. They may be frequently exposed to Vegemite and accordingly develop a preference for Vegemite.”

The converse is also true: people who have not been repeatedly exposed to the iconic Australian food may dislike it.

The sad news is that if you want to kick your saucy habit, Dr Liem believes it might be too late if you’re an adult.  

“It’s very difficult to go against human nature and develop an aversion to a sweet taste.”

Dr Liem recommends focusing on the next generation, reducing your children’s exposure to salty and sweet flavours from a young age.


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