Our relationships with food are growing ever more complex. On the one hand, obesity, eating disorders and food allergies and intolerances are on the rise. On the other, there’s a national obsession with celebrity chefs and TV cooking shows. Can the psychological dimension to food shed light on what’s going on and help us to eat well?
Whether we enjoy food isn’t just down to our sense of taste. We’re as reliant on our senses of sight, smell, touch and sound. These sensory perceptions aren’t just important for our eating experience. They also play a crucial role in our buying habits – and advertisers and retailers know exactly how to press the right sensory buttons.
Over the years there has been much research into how the senses can alter habits – much of it paid for by brands and food companies. These insights have been integrated into advertising campaigns and in stores (the scent of freshly baked bread is an obvious example). Other research findings include ‘sonic seasoning’ – the art of changing taste perception by using sound, and directing food choices using visual cues (e.g. people exposed to more images of food make worse choices).
Researchers have found that when someone’s mood is low, they don’t smell as well, which means they don’t enjoy their food as much. One hypothesis for the high levels of obesity in the US is that iced water is served with food, which deadens the sense of taste.
Food manufacturers use the senses to trick us into liking their products. CO2 bubbles in fizzy colas mask the sugar, which would be overwhelming and unpleasant to drink if the cola was flat. This begs the question – why put so much sugar in the cola in the first place? The answer is that sugar is addictive, and our brain trains us to associate satisfying sugar addiction with drinking the cola. That’s just one example of how our senses can trick us into making the wrong choices that only benefit the company and its shareholders.
The majority of research into the relationship between food and the senses is for profit driven businesses. But these insights could be used to great effect in the public health realm, to nudge us into eating healthily and sustainably. The world of food would look a lot different if the amount of money spent by brands on manipulating our senses was redirected to good food that sustains our bodies and our planet.
This summary was partly drawn from an interview with Prof. Barry C. Smith on medium.com. The full interview can be found here.