Scientists Say Changing Your Eating Method Could Maximize Your Oreo Cookie Enjoyment
You could be a dunker, a twister, a licker, or a fast snacker who just bites right in: There are as many ways to eat an Oreo as there have been limited-edition versions of the treat. And more than 100 varieties later—including Brookie-O, Limeade, and (in China) Hot Chicken Wing—there’s still no consensus among consumers on the best way to devour milk’s favorite cookie.
Scientists, however, have a few ideas on how to maximize your Oreo enjoyment, and the Oreo makers themselves have an official recommendation.
“Perhaps the best known way to eat an Oreo is the classic ‘twist, lick, and dunk,’” writes Marion Delgutte Saenen, Oreo’s U.S. marketing director, in an email, “and while fans might add their personal spin here or there, in our opinion it’s still the best way to eat America’s favorite cookie.”
Still, food scientists and specialists in the field of sensory studies can offer some research-backed methods for gleaning pleasure from an Oreo. It starts with the cookie’s classic combination of chocolate and vanilla, flavors that are quite possibly what researchers call “congruent”—that is, combinable in a way that’s pleasing to your senses. Congruence is difficult for scientists to measure, but in a 2016 study in the journal Chemical Senses, they note that chocolate’s rich, warm, slightly earthy smell fits well with sweet tastes, like vanilla.
The 40 billion Oreos produced each year are predominantly sweet, but they also pack a certain amount of fat. And as food scientists know, sugar and fat make a winning combo if you’re aiming to supercharge your brain’s reward system. Tastes can be broken down into five basic components: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami. And fat helps make Oreos more exciting to our palate than a straight-up sweetfest.
“The combination of fat and sugar does something that is probably not addition, but synergy. Instead of 1 + 1 = 2, it’s 1 + 1 = 4,” says Linda Flammer, a senior research associate at Philadelphia’s Monell Chemical Senses Center. The layman’s translation: “Most scientists believe that fat plus sugar is super yummy.”
But Oreos don’t mesmerize with taste alone; aromas have a huge impact on the eating experience. When you bite into an Oreo, Flammer says, chemicals in the cookie release odorants into the air inside your mouth. These aromas flow to your nasal cavity, where they interact with smell receptors and enter your brain’s decoding process. Your brain is likely to find those smells delightful, says Charles Spence, a professor of experimental psychology at the U.K’s University of Oxford. Spence says chocolate and vanilla are two of the world’s most liked smells.
Spence’s research, including a 2004 study in the Journal of Sensory Studies, indicates that another aspect of the Oreo bite—the crunch—might also predispose nibblers to become fans. We humans like noisy foods. It helps us focus on what we’re eating. “When we bite into something that makes noise, that sound draws our attention to our mouth so we’re more aware of what we’re tasting,” Spence says. “Be it breakfast cereals, biscuits, crisps, and even fresh produce like apples and celery, food that makes noise can convey freshness.” The soft snap of an Oreo’s dark cocoa-rich wafer, in other words, could tell your brain that the cookies are “freshly baked.”
Spence adds that Oreos advertise themselves as tasty before they even reach your mouth. We perceive round foods as more approachable than jagged and angular foods, and we associate roundness with sweetness. On top of their welcoming shape, Oreos are uniform, which creates familiarity, says Curtis Luckett, director of the University of Tennessee’s Center for Sensory Science. They’re the same cookie wherever you buy them.
“Every Oreo is almost identical, and things tend to be more pleasant or liked more when they’re familiar and expected,” Luckett says. “Besides high-level Michelin star dining, it’s usually a bad idea to mess with people’s food expectations. The fact that [Nabisco] can take out basically all the variability of baking and cookie construction is probably a facet of why Oreos are so well liked.”
One Oreo element that does vary, depending how you eat it, is texture. While taste can be described in one-dimensional terms—“too sour,” “not enough salt”—texture is multifaceted. Snack foods can be creamy, crunchy, wavy, puffy, crispy, smooth, gummy, chewy, soft-baked, and flaky; combinations and contrasts between these textures appear in popular foods across many different cultures. An influential 1993 study from San Jose State University and Nutrilite, an Amway supplement brand, proposed that the most palatable foods have “dynamic contrast,” meaning they offer your mouth a variety of sensations in each bite. When it comes to Oreos, Luckett says, “you have texture attributes that are generally well liked: You’ve got the smooth and creamy and the crispy and crunchy. It’s a built-in contrast of already well-liked textures.”
Whole Oreos juxtapose the crunchy wafer and the smooth creme, but you can alter this combination with your eating method to suit your individual preference. People who twist an Oreo open to eat the creme first might enjoy the cookie’s textures one at a time, while those who bite right in might enjoy the combination of smoothness and crispness. A milk dunk makes an Oreo even more dynamic to the senses. Cold milk might dull the sweetness of the creme and give you some exciting temperature variance inside your mouth, but milk’s textural effects on an Oreo are extensive.
“You have a lot of do-it-yourself innovations [with dunking],” Flammer says. “You can dunk it for a very long time and make it very mushy, but if you dunk it for a short amount of time, it might be just to soften it slightly. I would imagine that people who have dentures are going to have a different approach than, say, children with smaller teeth.”
There are four categories of eaters based on the way people manipulate food inside their mouth. Members of the Understanding and Insight Group, a product and strategy development firm, used research to divide people into “mouth behavior types”: crunchers, chewers, smooshers, and suckers. Crunchers deploy “forceful mouth action” to fast and loud effect (think Bugs Bunny), while chewers like the sensation of chewing so much that they “look for fullness in the mouth” and “turn the food into a moist mass.” Smooshers use their tongues and palates to mash their food, and suckers literally try to suck flavor out of foods before chewing and swallowing. (Ever let chocolate melt on your tongue?)
Flammer and Luckett both note that you can intensify your Oreo enjoyment by identifying your own texture preferences—and pursuing those preferences through the way you eat. Part of the Oreo’s popularity can be traced to its manipulability: All types of eaters can optimize the treat to their desires.
But psychology suggests that the best way to eat an Oreo might just be the way you’ve always done it. The cookie’s form invites a ritual, and a 2013 article in the journal Psychological Science notes that your food rituals—twisting Oreos, stacking Oreos, licking all the creme off first—might enhance your enjoyment of that food.
“If you have a fond memory of dunking Oreos in milk with a friend or family member, twisting or chomping could never hope to evoke that same rush of emotion,” writes Stella Parks in an email. Parks is the author of the cookbook BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts, winner of a James Beard Foundation Award. “Likewise, if biting right through [an Oreo] floods your tastebuds with a deep sense of chocolate that really strikes to the heart of a craving, tepidly licking at the mild creme will never satisfy.”
Keying into childhood memories and rituals is probably another key driver of our Oreo enjoyment. Foods that evoke nostalgia have been linked to positive emotions, suggests a 2014 paper published in Qualitative Market Research. And in 2017, research from the University of Oxford found that people who eat with others strengthen their social bonds and are more likely to report feeling happy. So whether you’re an ardent creme-first, cookie-second Oreo eater or a dunking devotee, you might boost your cookie experience by evoking simpler, more carefree moments, and eating like you’re a kid again.
“[Oreos might] remind you of that period of your life when you were looked after,” says Megan Elias, director of the gastronomy program at Boston University’s Metropolitan College. “It’s an escape hatch into a time when someone cared for you. Biting into an Oreo is like your brain saying, ‘somebody loves you.’”
Loops created by Kristen Parker using images from Trevor Raab
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