Olive Garden's breadsticks are near the top of the list of addictive and utterly soul-fulfilling foods. If you've never had the pleasure of eating one of these, run and do not walk to your nearest branch (and then come back and finish reading this article). As a friend and I were procrastinating on our homework the other day by raving about how euphoric this carbohydrate-loaded experience is, we came to a bit of an impasse. Everybody knows how good they are -- but why?
Before we can answer that question though, we need to dive in and figure out exactly what Olive Garden breadsticks are made out of. With the help of some fellow bloggers and several copycat recipes, I’m here to tell you that the ingredient list to bake these breadsticks is absurdly short. Fresh dough (essentially just yeast, flour, and water), a little bit of butter, and a pinch of garlic salt are all that you need. The simplicity of this magic trio makes the mouth-watering taste of Olive Garden’s most famous menu item that much more mysterious -- so what’s the secret?
Sum of its Parts:
To decipher this, we first have to examine the two main macronutrients in breadsticks, carbohydrates and fats, separately. When someone bites into a breadstick, a mouth enzyme known as salivary amylase immediately begins to break the dough down into its carbohydrate building blocks. These compounds, including glucose, activate at least one of the four different types of taste receptor cells (TRCs) in the mouth, which can then send a corresponding signal to relevant neurons in the brain.
Importantly, some of these neural signals are implicated in self-reinforcing reward pathways. One study observed that the genetic material coding for dopamine receptors, a key mediator in processing rewarding behaviour, was significantly up-regulated after sugar consumption. This effect was also observed in rats that were addicted to morphine -- explaining how the popular-press headline “sugar is as addictive as drugs,” came to fruition.
A parallel neural process occurs upon ingestion of the butter, although the exact mechanisms for tasting fats are far more unclear than its carbohydrate and protein counterparts. Researchers have only just begun to mount evidence for the presence of tongue receptors that can detect long chain fatty acids, the building blocks of most lipids, and it seems that the gene responsible for this detection can vary significantly within the population. There is also growing support for the presence of signaling receptors in the gut that respond to ingested fat by activating the endocannabinoid system, which also aids in the modulation of neural reward pathways.
With these above facts in mind, it comes as no surprise that the combination of the dough (simple carbohydrates) with the butter (fat) packs a real punch as far as satiety and neural pleasure are concerned. The popular press has likened the “addictiveness” of these types of foods to opioids -- a powerful message given the scope of the current American opioid epidemic. Interestingly, one study found that using the common opioid antagonist Naloxone was effective in reducing the caloric intake of chronic binge-eaters, suggesting that the pathways mediating both of these addictive behaviours are related.
The physiology is interesting, but why is the human body wired this way? It’s hard to imagine a time of perpetual undernutrition given the magnitude of the worldwide obesity crisis, but some scientists argue that these pathways are a result of thousands of years of evolution. Taste receptors and neural circuits are designed to unconsciously aid us in the proper recognition and digestion of food. Carbohydrates, fats, and proteins are all energy-dense compounds that are necessary for proper function, and an innate reward pathway designed to encourage consumption of these nutrients makes perfect sense in the paradigm of starvation and survival of the human species.
The bottom line:
It turns out that the breadstick-induced euphoria that people always joke about is actually rooted in some fact. Seminal research in the field of nutrition science has indicated that the taste of carbohydrates and fats is literally wired to induce pleasurable feelings in our brains, designed to encourage consistent consumption of nutrient-dense foods. I sincerely hope that you enjoyed this article, and hopefully you learned enough so that the next time you find yourself at Olive Garden with friends or family, munching away on the unlimited baskets of breadsticks, you’ll truly be able to answer the question: why do these taste SO good?
Disclaimer: I am not a licensed nutritionist nor a registered dietician. The opinions expressed in this article are my own, and each individual is ultimately responsible for his/her dietary and nutrition practices. Please consult a physician before starting a new dietary program.
Image Credit: https://www.self.com/story/olive-garden-breadsticks-the-healthy-redux