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Defining hyper‐palatable foods

Image: kin kate, Pizza, Public Domain Pictures, Public domain

This paper sets out a definition of so-called hyper-palatable foods (HPF), i.e. foods designed to contain combinations of fat, sugar, carbohydrates, and/or sodium at levels that make it likely that people will continue eating these foods for longer (compared to other foods where they stop eating sooner through the mechanism of sensory‐specific satiety).

According to the authors, the food industry uses “well‐established food formulas”, i.e. particular combinations of fat, sugar, sodium, and carbohydrates that increase the foods’ palatability (i.e. taste) and consumption levels due to their activation of the brain’s reward systems. However, claim that these formulas are not well known to the scientific community. They therefore aimed to develop a standardised definition of HPF, to make it easier to do research on the prevalence and effects of HPF.

The authors reviewed the literature to find qualitative descriptions of HPF. They found that these fell into three main clusters: 

  1. Meats and meals (e.g. pizza) containing both fat and sodium - named the FSOD category.
  2. Desserts (e.g. ice cream) containing both fat and simple sugars - named the FS category.
  3. Foods containing carbohydrates and sodium (e.g. bread, popcorn) - named the CSOD category.

These descriptions were converted into quantitative definitions (shown in the table below as average and range) using nutrition software.


% kcal from fat

% kcal from carbohydrates

% kcal from simple sugars

% sodium by weight


47 (20-99)

22 (0-58)

11 (0-55)

0.62 (0.31-2.08)


41 (20-65)

14 (0-43)

37 (21-63)

0.24 (0.02‐0.58)


23 (8-49)

57 (41-77)

6 (0-29)

0.55 (0.20‐1.15)


The authors then applied these quantitative definitions to the USDA Food and Nutrient Database for Dietary Studies, a dataset representative of foods available in the United States, to evaluate which food items fall into one of these three categories. 

62% of foods in the database met the criteria for at least one of the HPF clusters, with the majority falling into the FSOD cluster (fat plus sodium). 30% of the HPF items identified were based on grains (e.g. cereals and pasta), and 32% were processed or cooked meats or meat-based dishes. Some items fell into an HPF cluster because of their cooking method, e.g. carrots that have been glazed in sugar and cooked in butter.

Some items that fell into the HPF category could be seen as surprising. For example, foods that are labelled as having reduced levels of fat, sugar, salt, or calories might not usually be described as being hyper-palatable. However, about half of these items actually fitted into one or more of the HPF cluster definitions.

The authors suggest that this new definition of HPF can form the basis of further research on overeating and obesity, and inform policies to regulate the most problematic foods (in terms of health) without restricting entire food types (e.g. desserts).




Extensive research has focused on hyper‐palatable foods (HPF); however, HPF are defined using descriptive terms (e.g., fast foods, sweets), which are not standardized and lack specificity. The study purpose was to develop a quantitative definition of HPF and apply the definition to the Food and Nutrient Database for Dietary Studies (FNDDS) to determine HPF prevalence in the US food system.


A numeric definition of HPF was developed by extracting common HPF descriptive definitions from the literature and using nutrition software to quantify ingredients of fat, simple sugars, carbohydrates, and sodium. The definition was applied to the FNDDS.


HPF from the literature aligned with three clusters: (1) fat and sodium (> 25% kcal from fat, ≥ 0.30% sodium by weight), (2) fat and simple sugars (> 20% kcal from fat, > 20% kcal from sugar), and (3) carbohydrates and sodium (> 40% kcal from carbohydrates, ≥ 0.20% sodium by weight). In the FNDDS, 62% (4,795/7,757) of foods met HPF criteria. The HPF criteria identified a variety of foods, including some labeled reduced or low fat and vegetables cooked in creams, sauces, or fats.


A data‐derived HPF definition revealed that a substantial percentage of foods in the US food system may be hyper‐palatable, including foods not previously conceptualized as hyper‐palatable.



Fazzino. T. L., Rohde, K. and Sullivan, D. K. (2019). Hyper‐Palatable Foods: Development of a Quantitative Definition and Application to the US Food System Database. Obesity Symposium, 27(11), pp. 1761-1768.

Read the full paper here. See also the Foodsource resource What is ultra-processed food? And why do people disagree about its utility as a concept?

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