Teasing Out Your Bliss Point

When my beloved and I stopped by Art Things in West Annapolis last week for some advice on hanging a piece of fiber art I had made a couple years ago, we ran into Jeff Huntington. He is a local artist and adjunct faculty of The Corcoran School of Art + Design in Washington, D.C. He also does screen-print work and makes my beloved’s work shirts, and that is the main way we know him.

My beloved asked him what he’s been up to and he mentioned Bliss Point, a series of portraits of a variety of children and young people—nieces and nephews of Huntington’s—that capture their expressions as sugar addicts. The term “bliss point” is food-industry jargon for the point at which there is just the right amount of sugar that makes a processed food or drink optimally enjoyable.

Processed Food Today
“Bliss point” is the key to the castle for processed food companies. If they can target just the right amount of sugar in their products, they’ll sell more. The general thinking is that people buy “food” based on what they expect it will taste like—and how—not based on how nourishing the food (or “food product”) is. The food-processing industry has reams of data (mathematical and otherwise) about the various bliss points of processed food. And they can make similar calculations for salt and increasingly for fat, which has been tricky to pinpoint.

A mural by Jeff Huntington and Jimi HaHa depicting one of Huntington's nephews after he drank a 20-ounce Mountain Dew.

A mural by Jeff Huntington and Jimi HaHa depicting one of Huntington’s nephews after he drank a 20-ounce Mountain Dew.

Huntington’s work on the bliss point is very visible in a mural he did with local artist and musician Jimi “HaHa” Davies. (The two have an artistic partnership known as JaH-HaHa Collaborative Art, and if you live in Annapolis or spend some time there, you’ve probably seen their penny portraits or t-shirts.) The mural, entitled SUGARUSH, is one of Huntington’s nephews and captures the expression of the boy after he has drunk a 20-ounce Mountain Dew. The mural is on an east-facing wall of the Metropolitan restaurant on West Street in Annapolis. The boy looks like he’s going to blow up.

The Bliss Point series portraits can be viewed here. The portraits speak for themselves. But if you understand something about how sugar behaves in the body, then you won’t be too surprised that the children look like they’re drugged out. Bliss Point was Huntington’s response to an invitation to Corcoran fine arts faculty to participate in an exhibition in Milan, called Are We What We Eat? Sustenance and Art. The aim: raise awareness of issues around sustainable food and nutrition.

Because Huntington often taps his nieces and nephews to serve as models, he gets up-close looks of children who consume a lot of caffeine and sugar and other processed foods from an early age. For this reason, he shifted some of the imagery he used in the collages to those of “cupcakes, icing, brownies, chocolate and other sweets.”

Health and social issues have tended to entice Huntington, whose past series have focused on Alzheimer’s (Plaques and Tangles), because his own father lives with advanced stages of the illness, and anorexia and eating disorders among those in the beauty/fashion industry (Super Models).

The Philadelphia-based nonprofit Monell Center does a lot of research around the chemistry of human taste and smell, including the "bliss point."

The Philadelphia-based nonprofit Monell Center researches the chemistry of human taste and smell, including the “bliss point.”

Adults, even the parents of today’s children, may not “get it” when it comes to sugar and manufactured foods that are specifically engineered to keep em coming back for more. Although the food-processing industry is not terribly old in the long history of what people have eaten, it has become increasingly sophisticated in terms of what it puts into food to encourage consumption. The term “bliss point” used to be applied to economics, but has made its home in the food-processing industry since the 1970s.

Processed Food Back Then

Today is different than when Huntington or I grew up in the ‘70s. We had processed foods, of course. One of my favorites was Little Debbie Swiss Rolls, those creamy combinations of chocolate and vanilla that I liked to freeze, then cut into slices before eating. There were Lucky Charms and Sugar Pops and, later, Cheerios to which I added granulated white sugar. There were Yoo-hoo chocolate drinks and Doritos, and one of my other favorites—Pop Tarts.

I don’t like thinking about these today, because I am concerned that even thinking about them will trigger my metabolism to prepare to receive them, which means it would say to the pancreas, “Hey, buddy! Wake up! WE NEED SOME INSULIN!” Even when I wasn’t eating super-processed stuff, I was still getting sugar in the form of Del Monte Fruit Cocktail or Libby’s canned corn. Despite my memories of these foods, they were not constant companions. Mom did the grocery shopping and so, had a fairly tight grip on the food budget and what we ate, and she would not allow junk to replace better-quality foods.

To this day, I still have not tried this food product. Mom always made hers from scratch.

To this day, I still have not tried this food product. Mom always made hers from scratch.

Mom cooked supper almost every night or we had leftovers and those things were seldom out of a box. We never had Hamburger Helper, for example, and she made her mac and cheese from scratch. But we ate a fair amount of pasta—spaghetti or Husband’s Delight—and rice—the processed yellow rice you could get in tiny bags at the Kash ‘n’ Karry for Monday night’s chicken-and-yellow-rice dish.

Things changed about 1980-81. Pinellas County, Florida, got a Costco and a Pace and things that had been a sometimes-treat, such as Coke, became pretty regular drinks we’d have with supper. They were so much cheaper to buy in bulk…and Mom did.

I speed-skated competitively, and I recall many a Friday night, when the general skate session ended at midnight, we’d come in for a two-hour practice. At 2 AM, we’d head toward home and stop at the Jack-in-the-Box or, more often, at the Krispy Kreme. I loaded up on a crème-filled, chocolate-covered doughnut topped with whipped cream and a maraschino cherry. I ate this with a small carton of milk, while the adults had coffee and caught up on more gossip. My parents would have been just slightly older than the age I am now, and I cannot imagine staying up that late—even with a child in a sport like speed-skating—or eating that much sugar or drinking caffeine at what is considered “liver time” in Chinese medicine, the time when we are to give most of our processing organs a rest.

“Food Product” Prevalence
But it’s not only that today, everywhere we look, we find processed foods. It’s also that they are cheap to buy and, as Huntington points out, very well advertised. The advertising has “been there for a long time, but it’s become so intense, relentless and constant,” he says. If there’s an equation that seems to suit processed food, it might be bliss point + prevalence + convenience + heavy advertising = more sales/more consumption.

The funny thing about the processed food industry is that it does not confine itself to any one country. In fact, recently the United States shifted to second place in the ranking of nations consuming energy-deficient foods, following Mexico. Some thought this was reason to cheer. I was not one of them.

It was not all that long ago that it was common in places like the South to see mineral deficiencies result in illnesses like pellagra. Many people don’t seem to have a handle on the physics and physiology of food/energy. A food that is not nutrient dense actually draws more from the body’s reserves that it gives back, which means the person’s energetic accounts are in the red.

More common sight: families buying fresh food directly from farmers at local markets.

A more common sight: families buying fresh food directly from farmers at local markets.

I asked Huntington what he thought might slow or reverse these tendencies to consume “food products” and drinks that are not helpful for us. He doesn’t know, but says any move toward reversing and slowing is just that—slow. “Younger generations slowly get wiser, older generations and habits die, and eventually it will be more common to care, be more aware, read labels, etc., and to want this kind of awareness for our children instead of blindly painting some false image of ‘happiness’ for others to see.”

There are signs of a wake-up underway. If you visit local farmers markets on the weekend, you see more families with young children buying fruits and vegetables and better-quality eggs. You see more people growing some of their own food. You have more people asking important questions: “What’s in this? Are there any genetically modified organisms? What about ‘natural flavors’?”

I, for one, am hopeful that the times, they are a’changin’.

To view more of the work of JaH-HaHa Art Collaborative, go here.

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