Why Do Humans Crave Crispy Food?

John S. Allen, a research scientist at the University of Southern California, explores our draw to crispy foods in a new book called The Omnivorous Mind: Our Evolving Relationship With Food. He speaks to host Guy Raz.

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(SOUNDBITE OF CRUNCHING)

GUY RAZ, HOST:

OK. So go ahead and think of every food you can that's crispy: French fries, for example, of course, potato chips, anything tempura. Now, here's a question: Even though all that stuff is pretty bad for you, why is it also good? And why, to quote Chef Mario Batali, does the word crispy sell more food than almost any other single adjective?

Well, that's a that question John Allen, an anthropologist at the University of Southern California, poses in his new book. And John Allen, I am of course eating some potato chips.

JOHN ALLEN: Yes, you are.

RAZ: These are the Utz brand of potato chips common here in the Mid-Atlantic. They are delicious, I must admit. I don't eat them often. I've got two children. I don't - you know, I want to set a good example. But I - they are good. And why is that? Why are they so good?

Well, the potato chip...

(SOUNDBITE OF CRUNCHING)

RAZ: Pardon me. Sorry. Go ahead.

ALLEN: The potato chip is very crunchy and crispy. So if we go back and look at all these sort of why crispy appeals, we can start, you know, 60 million years ago when primates first started to separate themselves from other kind of mammals. Probably one of the reasons that they did so is that they - those little kind of primates ate a lot of insects. Not going back so far, a lot of vegetable plant material is also crispy, especially if it's fresh. It's always a sign of freshness.

We have very more hardwired appeal for salty, sugar, maybe fat - that's sort of debated - and a flavor called umami, which is very savory. Now, we don't have a crispy detector, but yet the crispiness appeals to us. And so...

RAZ: See, but how much of that is about...

(SOUNDBITE OF CRUNCHING)

RAZ: ...you know, the sound?

ALLEN: Well, I think the sound - this gets at a sort of more individual level of sensory habituation. You know, if you eat a lot of the same food at one sitting, you start to stop tasting it so well. And, you know, people like Thomas Keller who have these very expensive fancy restaurants, they serve all sorts of many, many small courses.

And part of it is to avoid that habituation. But when you add crispiness to it, you can sit there and munch away. I had a big bowl of popcorn - I was watching some basketball game a weekend or two ago - and I just kept munching away at it.

RAZ: Yeah. You can't stop.

ALLEN: Even though I realize I kind of enjoy that crunch, crunch, crunch, I think, again, that's another - in terms, especially, in that sort of Batali comment about putting it on a restaurant menu...

RAZ: Yeah.

ALLEN: ...or hearing it said...

RAZ: Crispy.

ALLEN: ...crispy. And it's true. It's like a lot of functional imaging studies. If you visualize certain activities in your brain and you can do a scan and you can see that certain parts of the brain are already lighting up. So when you say crispy, your mouth is already moving, you're activating that whole system. So I think onomatopoetics, especially in that sort of menu sense, get you going and makes it almost like, oh, it's already almost there.

RAZ: That's John Allen. He's a research scientist at the University of Southern California. He writes about why we like all kinds of foods, in addition to crispy ones, in his new book "The Omnivorous Mind." John Allen, thanks.

ALLEN: No problem.

(SOUNDBITE OF CRUNCHING)

RAZ: Oh. Before you go...

ALLEN: Yes.

RAZ: ...what's up with Krispy Kreme? There's no - that's not crispy.

ALLEN: No. I've always - and cream is spelled wrong, so I'm very (unintelligible)...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POTATO CHIP SONG")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) ...how crunchy, crunchy potato chips. Crunch, crunchy, crunchy. Ah, crunch, crunch, crunch. I don't want no lunch. All I want is potato chips. Potato chips, how my mouth does drip, potato chips. Crunchy, crunchy, crunchy, crunchy, crunchy, crunchy, crunchy. Don't bring me no lunch. All I want is potato chips.

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