Thursday, September 23, 2004

The Ketchup Conundrum

Clipped from Accordion Guy earlier in the week, but I've only now found time to read it: Malcolm Gladwell's New Yorker piece on The Ketchup Conundrum.

I find food technology strangely — and sometimes repellingly — fascinating: it takes something as intensely personal as "that tastes good to me" and attempts to apply the full rigour of science, statistics, and mechanics to make food more attractive to more consumers.

I'm rather warmed, then, by Howard Moscowitz's theory of plural perfection. As the article describes it, for many foods there is no one "best" recipe that everyone will favour. Rather, preferences tend to form clumps, so there are multiple best recipes: hence, food manufacturers are often better off specialising to cover all the favourites than they are generalising to an average preference. Moscowitz, quoted in the article:

"If you create only one product the best you can get across all the segments is a 60—if you're lucky. That's if you were to treat everybody as one big happy family. But if I do the sensory segmentation, I can get 70, 71, 72. Is that big? Ahhh. It's a very big difference. In coffee, a 71 is something you'll die for."

Good old Moscowitz: his science has given us choice rather than uniformity.

On the other hand, though, I'm less pleased to hear about how unassailable "high-amplitude" foods can be. A high-amplitude food is one which hits all five tastes (salt, sweet, sour, bitter, umami) in equal and well-blended proportions. Coke and Pepsi are high-amplitude; supermarket knock-offs aren't. High-amplitude foods are percieved as "complete" and "sensorily satisfying".

Linking back to his title, Gladwell describes how Heinz ketchup's high-amplitude formulation — high in umami-rich tomatoes, sweetened with sugar and soured with vinegar — helps it fight off less balanced rivals. He concludes that maybe ketchup is an exception to Moscowitz's theories.

I'm more worried: does this mean that, over time, the diversity that Moscowitz created will gradually contract back to a handful of carefully-formulated big-hitting high-amplitude brands? Won't all manufacturers strive to be fully balanced; sensorily satisfying maybe, but ultimately all uniformly dull?

Balance is safe, but often imbalance is much more interesting: the super-sweet sharpness of a ripe strawberry, the vinegary meatiness of a pork adobo. The food technologist quoted in the article sneers at so-called "pik! pik! pik! spikiness". But isn't it exactly that spikiness that makes food fun?

Categories: Food