Foods that have less explicitly textured surfaces are perceived to be tastier but not healthier


New research has demonstrated how food producers could change the surface texture of products to change people’s perceptions and promote healthy eating.

The study, led by Consumer Psychologist Dr Cathrine Jansson-Boyd of Anglia Ruskin University (ARU), investigated people’s perceptions of identical biscuits with six different textures.

Published in the journal Food Quality and Preference, the research involved 88 people rating the six oat biscuits on healthiness, tastiness, crunchiness, chewiness, pleasantness and likelihood of purchase based only on their visual appearance, not on their taste or touch.

Previous studies have shown that packaging, labelling and even the texture of a cup or plate can alter people’s perception of food.

This new study looked at how a food product itself can be perceived differently depending on its appearance.

Oat biscuits were chosen as they can represent both a “healthy” and “unhealthy” snack. The research found that the surface texture of the oat biscuit clearly communicated to people how healthy it was likely to be and the participants viewed the biscuits that had an explicit, pronounced texture, as healthier.

However, the biscuits that had a less explicitly textured surface were perceived to be tastier, crunchier and more likely to be purchased.

The study found that perceived tastiness increases as healthiness decreases, and the likelihood of purchasing the biscuit increases when perceived healthiness is low and decreases when healthiness is higher.

Therefore having a ‘healthy looking’ texture is considered to be a negative attribute in that it reduces perceived tastiness, a key criteria for purchasing biscuits. This has implications for producers of many different food types.

Dr Jansson-Boyd, Reader in Psychology at Anglia Ruskin University (ARU), said: “The findings are really exciting as they give food manufacturers a means to design foods that can help consumers make healthier choices.

This new study looked at how a food product itself can be perceived differently depending on its appearance.

“A sweet item, such as a biscuit, benefits from having an appearance as being less healthy as that increases the perception of tastiness and increases the likelihood of purchase. To guide healthier purchasing decisions, food producers can therefore look to use non-healthy looking, smoother textures to overcome this perception that healthy is not tasty.

“At a time when the World Health Organisation has declared that there is an obesity epidemic, it is essential to think of ways to encourage improved eating patterns. Our research provides a good starting point in how to promote healthier food products.”

Cross-cultural understating of sensory terminologies is a major need of today’s global world where the same products are tested and marketed internationally.

The growing demand for standards to describe products on a global scale makes it more important to define and understand sensory terminologies, either in analytical sensory description with trained panelists or with consumers to investigate human perception [1,2].

Sensory profiling can help to achieve better understanding of products and meet objectives [3]. However, cross-cultural sensory studies become complicated when understanding food perceptions. Issues such as language and culture can promote frustration when trying to understand the same products across multiple countries.

For descriptive sensory analysis, such problems can be overcome by training and good communication among researchers and panels [4]. This may be less easy to do with consumers, who may have high variability in their use of consumer terms, a problem aggravated by differences in language and culture.

For effective communication across cultures, particularly when consumers are involved, it is vital to understand how people of different languages and cultures describe the same perception.

Texture is an important multi-parameter sensory property stimulating consumers’ attitudes towards foods [5].

In some products, texture is more important than flavor [6]. It is essential to comprehend the structure of texture vocabulary (terms) from the consumers’ point of view, instead of just simply translating them into other languages.

Exploring appropriate consumers’ texture terms, describing particular texture perceptions of the consumers in daily life, can help to:

(a) better design food products to meet specific needs;

(b) address consumer texture concerns;

(c) avoid misunderstanding that can occur from simple translations;

(d) accurately measure sensory meaning of consumer perception; and

(e) help promote marketing that directly speaks to consumer needs.

Szczesniak and other researchers gave importance to developing texture lexicons and classifying texture terms in various languages [6,7]. Since those early days of texture studies, translations and comparisons of texture terms among different languages have been an important topic for research. Nevertheless, languages contain many nuances in words, and the topic can quickly become complicated.

Drake [8] developed a list of 54 English texture terms and had approximately 50 English proficient collaborators with texture expertise to translate those terms into 22 other languages.

The results indicated that some languages use a single word for multiple texture attributes (for example, katai in Japanese corresponds to rigid, stiff, hard, firm, or tough in English).

Although the English terms were described by distinguishable terms in another language, the author concluded that translations might result in misunderstanding and inconsistencies because English words were presented out of context.

The other drawback was the exclusion of consumers, and the use of highly qualified sensory expertise completely differs from consumers in contextual textural perception. For example, one paper [9] had an English panel to generate descriptors for chocolate, which were then translated into Norwegian and used by a panel.

The panels used attribute “fruity” differently. The authors concluded that the fundamental perceptual dimensions were similar across cultures, but the underlying sensory dimension and vocabulary differed.

The problem in simply translating terms was highlighted in a study comparing English and Finnish texture terms [2].

Because terms can have multiple meanings, inconsistency can arise. The researchers provided pre-selected texture terms to consumers, which might have restricted consumers’ own vocabularies.

In addition, food samples were not provided for textural experience. Several other studies [10,11,12,13,14] emphasized the differences in the use of textural terms among cultures. The majority of studies either compared existing texture vocabularies or used direct translation of terms into different languages without consideration of specific products or the nuances that exist among languages.

However, the general consensus was that the major dimensions of texture vocabulary are consistent across cultures and languages.

Some studies have compared texture vocabularies for specific foods among different languages. French and Vietnamese panels individually generated and defined a set of texture descriptors to profile jellies [15].

The lexicons that were developed were then assessed against preselected sensory descriptors, which allowed successful translation and transfer of attributes to panels in their respective countries.

Son et al. [16] used cooked rice as a model product to develop a lexicon to describe rice texture in four countries, i.e., France, Japan, Korea, and Thailand. Lists of terms were generated by naïve panels, and the authors noted that the wealth of vocabulary for texture and aroma was influenced by culture.

The most texture terms were generated by Thai panelists, but all terms were semantically similar when translated into English. Zannoni [17] highlighted that while translating texture terms, it is essential to focus mainly on stimuli rather than on words.

These results established that direct translation of texture terms isolated from their context could be very problematic. Hence, it can be hypothesized that the consumer understanding of texture is strongly related to the sensory perception experience.

One way to better understand consumer terminology is through focus groups. Focus groups typically involve a roundtable discussion centered on particular issues.

The groups must be led by qualified moderators. Focus groups are best suited for clarification of problems, consumer perspectives, attitudes, reactions, motivations, and emotions [18,19,20].

A “laddering” probing style that leads to deeper understanding of the reasons behind participants’ responses or comments can be used to provide depth of information [21]. The focus group method is a unique method to capture significant sensory information that could be otherwise missed [22,23].

Focus groups have been used successfully to generate consumer descriptive sensory terms for mung beans [24], mayonnaise [25], pudding [26], and peanut butter [27]. Qualitative methodology is a well-practiced technique to explore consumers’ knowledge systems, vocabularies, beliefs, and the phraseology that they use to talk about foods.

The overall objective of this study was to determine consumer terminology that corresponds to descriptive sensory terminology for selected characteristics of snack food texture in four languages:

English, Mandarin (Chinese), Spanish, and Hindi. Specific objectives of this study were (1) to obtain a consumer meaningful texture vocabulary for key aspects of snack foods, (2) provide positive and negative connotations associated with texture vocabulary, and (3) determine whether simple translations of sensory terms to consumer language would be appropriate. Additional information on the role that snacks play was collected too.

Anglia Ruskin University
Media Contacts:
Jon Green – Anglia Ruskin University

Original Research: Closed access
“To see is to hold: Using food surface textures to communicate product healthiness”. Cathrine V. Jansson-Boyd, and Mateja Kobescak.
Food Quality and Preference doi:10.1016/j.foodqual.2019.103866.


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