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Unveiling the secrets of our food habits

You are what you eat – but why do you eat what you eat and buy certain food products instead of others? What affects your enjoyment of the meal? These questions were dealt with by three professors at an interdisciplinary workshop held by the Department of Food Science at Aarhus University. The workshop included an inaugural lecture by Affiliated Professor Charles Spence from Oxford University.

2015.02.10 | Janne Hansen

Prize-winning chefs create artful food that appeals to several senses. This salad was inspired by a Kandinsky painting. Photo: Crossmodal Research Laboratory

New winds are blowing in the grocery store in that consumers’ perceptions of quality are changing. This is the message from Professor Klaus G. Grunert from MAPP - Centre for research on customer relations in the food sector at the Department of Business Administration at Aarhus University. He recently spoke at an open workshop organized by the Department of Food Science at Aarhus University. The title of the workshop was "A Perfect Meal: The Multisensory Science of Food and Eating". The workshop dealt with sensory, consumer and marketing perspectives and their synergy with the experimental psychologists view.


- The consumer’s perception of quality of a food product is no longer solely based on taste, convenience and healthiness of the product. There has been a paradigm shift so that intangible factors such as authenticity and responsibility also play a part in determining whether we buy a food product or not, states Klaus G. Grunert.


If the product carries a story with it that exudes a feeling of truthfulness, honesty and sincerity it seems authentic. If the product has an aura of sustainability, animal welfare and ethics it seems responsible. These two factors can in turn influence the consumer’s perception that the product is also tasty, filling and healthy.


- An example of this is related to some consumers’ perceptions of organic products. Many consumers buy organic products because they feel and expect that the products taste better, are healthier, and are more filling. However, studies have shown that when the labels on the products are switched, the consumers still expect the product with the organic label to taste better even though it is not actually organic. Expectations mean a lot with regard to whether the consumer buys a product or not, says Klaus G. Grunert.


Food emotions

Encouraging consumers to try out new products is a challenge, since familiarity has a strong influence on whether a product is appreciated or not. This aspect of food sensory perception was addressed at the open workshop by Professor Derek V. Byrne from the Department of Food Science at Aarhus University. New food products are being developed to boost health but the challenge is often to ensure that the product also delivers an appealing sensory experience so that it is adopted as a new staple in the diet.


- Our ultimate goal is to promote health and well-being of course. But the fact that a new product is healthy is not sufficient to get consumers to try it out or to keep eating it once they have tried it. The product must also appeal to the mind, the situation of use as well as the senses, says Professor Derek V. Byrne.


Sensory science has traditionally used professional sensory panels to test reactions to new products using objective evaluations such as taste, smell and appearance. However, food can also provoke emotions and feelings, so subjects are also asked how a new food makes them feel. This is done in order to learn about consumers’ concepts and emotional reactions to food products.


- In one such experiment we produced new types of honey by adding various ingredients. The honey types were tested by panelists who were asked to describe the conceptual and emotional impressions that the different types of honey gave rise to. The honey types containing either mustard or peppermint were given labels such as "fun, modern, complex, unique" while the honey types containing either horseradish, apple or sea buckthorn provoked descriptions such as "sadness, disappointment, anger, disgust". Thus, novelty in standard products like honey can work but it is very dependent on what types of novel changes are made to the product, Derek V. Byrne explains.


Food enjoyment is very much in your mind

The tongue is not the only organ that influences our perception of food enjoyment. The brain plays a leading role, according to Professor Charles Spence from Oxford University. He has recently become Affiliated Professor to the Department of Food Science at Aarhus University and gave his inaugural lecture at the workshop.


According to Charles Spence, psychology plays a large role in determining how you perceive what you put in your mouth. He studies the rules by which the brain integrates the senses.


- If you ask someone what their most memorable meal is, then you will find that there are very different perceptions. We have, however, found that there are some common factors that influence the perception of "the perfect meal", explains Charles Spence.


Music, memories, expectations, aromas, colours, cultural background and the company you keep are some of the players in determining how you experience your meal.


- Prize-winning chefs try to stimulate all the senses and create multi-sensual art. The five senses, i.e. taste, smell, sight, sound and feeling interact with each other in the brain, either by dominating, suppressing or boosting each other’s effects, says Charles Spence. But even all five senses are only part of the psychological picture. Much of your perception of a meal is due to feelings, memories and preconceived notions. The weight of the cutlery, size of the plate, sounds of the food and the surroundings, ambience and general expectations also have a great effect on how your food experience is perceived. All five senses are involved but, in addition, so are expectations and other feelings.


Food for thought about food

The three professors Klaus G. Grunert, Derek V. Byrne and Charles Spence gave their talks at the interdisciplinary workshop organized by the Department of Food Science at Aarhus University to celebrate and welcome Affiliated Professor Charles Spence to the Department. The workshop combined consumer science, sensory science and food psychology.


- Food research in itself is very interdisciplinary, so it is not possible to hold all relevant expertise within the department. Therefore, to ensure we are successful, it is critical that we have open and collaborative relationships with experts both outside the department within Aarhus University and experts outside Aarhus University. The synergies created by different perspectives and capability can provide inspiration for new projects and new approaches and create paradigm shifts that can improve people’s eating habits, says the head of the Department of Food Science Michelle Williams.


For more information please contact:

Head of Department Michelle Williams, Department of Food Science, e-mail: mw@food.au.dk, telephone: (+45) 8715 7957/8715 8335, mobile phone: (+45) 2517 0049


Professor Derek V. Byrne, Science Team Leader, Department of Food Science, e-mail: derekv.byrne@food.au.dk, telephone: (+45) 8715 8394, mobile phone: (+45) 28782840


Professor Klaus G. Grunert, Department of Business Administration, director of MAPP - Centre for research on customer relations in the food sector, e-mail: klg@badm.au.dk, telephone: (+45) 8716 5007, mobile phone: (+45) 4038 5319


Professor Charles Spence, Oxford University, Affiliated Professor to Department of Food Science, Aarhus University, e-mail: charles.spence@psy.ox.ac.uk, telephone: +44 (0)1865 271364