Healthier and more conscious food choices elicit change in overall health. Studies show that the most pervasive illnesses of the West, such as heart disease, stroke and diabetes, can be positively influenced by a better diet (1). The modifiable determinants of chronic disease are just that: Modifiable.
Researcher Adam Brumberg is the Deputy Director of the Cornell Institute for Behavioral Economics and Consumer Choice. Brumberg along with his colleagues are experts in food psychology, researching how and why we make the food choices that we do.
According to their research, our dietary choices are largely affected by convenience and stress levels. Our sense of taste is easily manipulated by context and bias. The more we are aware of these physiological and situational influences, the more we can use them to our advantage.
By understanding the subconscious factors influencing our taste buds, we can make more purposeful and conscious dietary choices. This deeper understanding presents an opportunity for us to tune into our environment, our context, and enable us to pinpoint unconscious food choice triggers. So we asked ourselves, how would a food psychology expert approach the opportunity to change our tastes?
As Deputy Director of the Cornell Institute for Behavioral Economics and Consumer Choice, Brumberg spoke with OnBlend about the ways in which we can influence our sense of taste to make better choices for ourselves.
“Humans make on average 200 food-related decisions per day” (2). Improving those decisions begins with understanding taste itself, as Brumberg explains in the interview below.
Factors that Influence Taste and Food Choice:
According to Brumberg, “taste is more than what happens in your mouth.” Our food preferences and desires are founded on much more than the five commonly cited physical attributes of taste: salt, sweet, sour, bitter and umami. It turns out that our other senses and perceptions play an important role.
“The majority of what you’re tasting is the result of aroma.”
Our sense of taste is intrinsically connected to our sense of smell. According to Brumberg, the average person can distinguish somewhere between 1,000 and 1,500 different scents, and these distinguishable aromas are the building blocks of what we taste.
Have you ever wondered why connoisseurs slurp their wine? It is because “through active aerating and chewing, all aromatic components of a flavor get released.” The greater the release of flavor, the greater the understanding, which results in the greater the pleasure (or displeasure) of the wine.
Our perceptions of taste are not only affected by our other senses, but are also altered by context.
I can change your perception of what something tastes like by the way it’s described or the context it’s served in.
Of course smell is an important part of taste, but most people don’t realize how crucial perception is when it comes to taste.
Brumberg tells us, “if you give someone green milk, they’ll tell you it’s matcha or mint flavored.” It turns out that many triggers affect our expectations of taste, such as pre-existing biases and social cues. “If a renowned sommelier recommends a wine, the expectation is that it will taste good. Price is also an indicator, as well as what a reference group thinks.” As Brumberg states, “we don’t always necessarily trust our own taste, but we use other cues to help inform us as to what things taste like.”
Beyond aroma, the final taste in your mouth is the context in which you’re consuming your food, your personal history with that food or your cultural associations with that food.
Additionally, stress, habit and convenience modify our food choices. Results from a study conducted by Brumberg and his colleagues at Cornell shows that our food choices are made worse by stress (2). The same goes for convenience: “If you pack a lunch the night before, you’re definitely going to put together something that’s a lot more healthful than if you are doing it as you’re running out of the house in the morning,” Brumberg says (2).
Using the things that we know we can change, we can create a new environment to help support the goal [of healthy eating].
According to Brumberg, “if you walk down the street and you stopped 100 people, 99 of them would say they would like to eat better overall. But we don’t necessarily always follow through on that. Most of us have a relationship with food that extends beyond biological need. This complicates making dietary adjustments for health outcomes.
With this in mind, how do we improve our diet? It is imperative to understand the factors that influence taste and food choices to evoke this behavior change.
It is our role to try to help people achieve better health outcomes and better goals.
Food for Thought
By being increasingly mindful and present, we can all illicit behaviour change for the better.
As Sir Francis Bacon wrote, ‘knowledge is power’ (3). So how will your 200 daily food choices change?
Curious why fast food is so addictive? Learn whyhere.
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Willett, Walter C., et al. “Chapter 44. Prevention of Chronic Disease by Means of Diet and Lifestyle Changes.” Disease Control Priorities in Developing Countries (2nd Edition), Feb. 2006, pp. 833–850., doi:10.1596/978-0-8213-6179-5/chpt-44.