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Food choices: What influences them?

Posted:  Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The growing epidemic of obesity worldwide has spurred scientists to look into factors that govern food choices. Scientists are now beginning to conduct studies to understand why we choose the foods we do and the psychological factors that influence these choices.

Research suggests that taste is an important factor that determines food choices. People who are reluctant to choose healthy foods have been shown to perceive healthy foods as less tasty than unhealthy foods. One online study looked at the impact that product labelling has on consumer perception of tastiness of healthy foods. The researchers examined whether product labelling was able to nudge more consumers into saying 'no' to a chocolate bar and 'yes' to an apple as part of a notional meal deal.

Participants were asked online to choose between an apple or a chocolate bar; around 50% of them preferred an apple. The participants were next divided into five groups and given the same choice (apple or chocolate bar). This time though, the apples bore five different labels: 'apple', 'healthy apple', 'succulent apple', 'healthy and succulent apple', 'succulent and healthy apple'. The study found that labels with both taste and health descriptors significantly increased apple selection – to 65.9% for 'healthy and succulent' and 62.4% for 'succulent and healthy'.

Another study published last year looked at the influence of ‘food swaps’ on dietary levels of energy, fat, sugar, or salt. The study used the model of an online supermarket and asked participants to complete a 12-item shopping task. Participants were offered alternatives with lower energy densities (ED) during the purchasing process. Lower ED alternatives were offered or imposed for each item, either at the point of selection or at checkout. The study found that more than 47% of the participants did not accept any of the alternatives they were offered. However, female participants and those who were better-off were more likely to accept swaps.

Scientists are devising studies to check whether priming methods that use healthy food advertisements can encourage preference for healthier foods. Priming is a psychological effect in which exposure to a stimulus, say a commercial for a fruit, influences a person’s response to a later stimulus, such as seeing that fruit in the store. One study conducted in Cambridge examined the influence of priming on eating behaviour. The study involved volunteers who were mainly female, well-educated, and older. Participants were asked to look at an advertisement for a healthy food (such as fruit) and then choose between healthy and unhealthy foods. The priming (advertisement) made little difference in this scenario. However, when the participants were hungry, they preferred energy-dense foods. Interestingly, when the hungry volunteers were shown an advertisement for fruit before their choice, the priming offset the 'hungry aspect'.

When the same study was conducted using a more nationally representative sample, priming was found unsuccessful in socially disadvantaged groups. Commenting on this aspect, Dr Suzanna Forwood, lecturer in Psychology at Anglia Ruskin University said, "These people are hard to reach and represent a real challenge to policy-makers. Research tells us that 89% of people want to make dietary changes to improve their health. We need to identify the levers that can support them."

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