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Sweetness happens in the mind as much as in the mouth

The color and odour of the drink, the music you listen to, the color and design of the bottle, the flavor and texture of the drink itself. A number of factors, not only in the product itself but in the situation, the setting and the surroundings influence how we perceive the taste of any given drink or food product. The project INNOSWEET examines a number of intrinsic and extrinsic factors in sweetness perception in the pursuit of creating new, sugar-reduced beverages that do not compromise with the consumers’ perception of sweetness.

[Translate to English:] Vi spiser og drikker med alle vores sanser. Foto: Colourbox
[Translate to English:] Vi spiser og drikker med alle vores sanser. Foto: Colourbox

People in the Western part of the world consume too much sugar. This has a number of negative consequences for our health. Especially amongst young teenagers whom consume elevated levels of sugar through beverages. This is the societal background for the INNOSWEET project that started in 2017 and runs for 4 years. The scientific partners  participating in the project have taken an unique multidisciplinary approach to influencing sweetness perception whilst lowering sugar content via working with both psychology, physiology and perception and in close collaboration with leading industry partners in the quest to come up with what one might call “Sugar Light products Volume 2.0.” Here, the perception of sweetness is not necessarily only created by substituting sugar with artificial sweeteners. Instead, other factors both within the product itself, such as aroma but also in the packaging, such as packaging colour and weight as well as the surroundings are taken into consideration.  

Line Ahm Mielby, Post Doctoral researcher at Dept. Food Science, Aarhus University, explains:

-When we eat or drink something, it doesn’t happen in a white, sterile, silent room. As researchers, we know this, however often the restrictions of rigorous research designs tend to make us see the human being as a machine making rational decisions, even though we are well aware, that this is not the case in real world contexts. In real life, we always act in a context which consists of a complex variety of factors related to the products, the packaging and the environment. In INNOSWEET we examine how the senses are interrelated and interact with these factors. We know, that what you hear or see is not processed completely independently. What you perceive with one sense can be affected by your other senses, says Line Ahm Mielby.

Sweet and sour music
Many external factors influence our perception of food and drink. Music, for example, is proven to have an influence on our taste experience. Qian Janice Wang, Assistant Professor at Dept. of Food Science, Aarhus University explains, you can talk about a sweet “soundtrack” versus a sour or bitter soundtrack. A sweet sound track is high pitched with consonant or in balanced harmonies, for example  “ The dance of the sugar plum fairy"   from Tchaikovsky’s ballet, The Nutcracker, is a good example of a “sweet soundtrack”. On the other hand, a “bitter” soundtrack is lower pitched, slower and with dissonant or clashing harmonies, e.g.  Bach’s Cello Suite No. 2 in D minor
    Furthermore, the font type used on the package, the color of the wrapping and even the sound of the wrapping, when we handle it, influence how we perceive the product inside. It all relates to our expectations to any given product - and how these expectations are created.


  Listen to more examples of “taste” soundtracks here 

Qian Janice Wang explains:

- In the market, there are a lot of examples of product failing, because one or more aspect of the packaging fails to meet the expectations of the consumer. One of many examples was a healthier wheat-based version of potato chips launched in New Zealand. The chips were a commercial success, but then the producer relaunched the product in a biodegradable packaging - which at first glance seemed like a good idea; Healthier chips in sustainable packaging. But: Because the packaging was so loud when you held it, having a hugely negative effect on consumer acceptance, the producer was forced to remove it off the market.

One of the project partners is University of Oxford, Dept. of Experimental Psychology, more specifically the Cross-Modal Research Laboratory, which is headed by Professor Charles Spence. He is a frontrunner concerning multisensory perception and the processing of sensory signals, and he has worked with both food-design but also technology interfacing and man-machine interaction.

So far, the studies within INNOSWEET have shown that music, the color of the cup, which the drink is served in, and, regarding the intrinsic factors, the level of vanilla aroma has an effect on our sweetness perception. Line Ahm Mielby from Dept. of Food Science works with the sensory perception side of the project. She explains that the presence of vanilla aroma seems to make us perceive a drink as sweeter, without it actually being so.
Next step is to examine the level of carbonation and its effect on the perception of sweetness. 

Health effects and market potential to be tested

Line Ahm Mielby explains that when all the data are gathered, the industry partners will develop pilot products based on the knowledge gained so far in the InnoSweet project. These products will then be tested both with sensory and consumer panels and in the market with the ambition for a market launch of elements in products and new product lines ultimately. Dept. of Health, at Aarhus University, represented by Associate Professor Per Bendix Jeppesen, will measure the acute health effects of consuming the products by measuring glucose level in the blood of the test persons, insulin levels. Further, the ingredient company Dupont will perform brain activity measurements. This is to ensure that the expectation in the mind around these products is deemed tolerable in the body, in order to ensure impact in the market.

Project Leader Derek V. Byrne enjoy the cross-disciplinary way of doing research:

All data collected in the health and market research within the project will then later be sent to Copenhagen University, Dept. of Food and Resource Economics, where Professor Jørgen Deigaard Jensen will develop a model calculating the societal, economical and health-related potential of these new types of products.

The benefits of cross-disciplinary research

- In general, the academic disciplines are quite segmented in practice, and we are all specialists within our own fields.  However, like with the InnoSweet project, it is in many cases a good idea to have interdisciplinary synergies in research to answer key questions. It does require good communication to work across disciplines, and we have to work with a joint mindset, where there is no “right way” when we combine our knowledge and competences. This way we gain a lot of new knowledge that would not have come forward, if we worked separately,

Read more about the project here

About InnoSweet:

Partners involved: Rynkeby Foods, Dupont, Carlsberg. Carlsberg want to focus on carbonated beverages, Rynkeby focuses on fruit based products, Dupont competences in sweetness and texturizing ingredients, Dupont also has competences regarding EEG measurements, what happens in the brain.

Project lead by Professor and Science Team Leader Derek V. Byrne, Food Quality Perception & Society, Dept. of Food Science, Aarhus University

For further information, please contact:

Project leader Derek V. Byrne
Mail: derekv.byrne@food.au.dk
Telefon: 0045 8715 8394