Changing the appearance of a snack could promote healthier eating: Study

By Gill Hyslop

- Last updated on GMT

New research has found that food textures affect a consumer's perception of the healthiness and tastiness of a biscuit. Pic: GettyImages/AaronAmat
New research has found that food textures affect a consumer's perception of the healthiness and tastiness of a biscuit. Pic: GettyImages/AaronAmat

Related tags consumer behaviour purchasing decisions Food design Texture Research Obesity World health organisation

The old adage of 'eating with your eyes' remains true, confirmed by research that has demonstrated that, by changing the surface texture of a snack, food producers could alter a consumer’s perception of its tastiness and the likelihood of purchasing it.

Researchers from the Anglia Ruskin University (ARU) in the UK and the University of Zagreb in Croatia found the perceived tastiness of a biscuit increases as its healthiness decreases.

They also noted the likelihood of purchasing the biscuit increases when perceived healthiness is low and decreases when healthiness is higher.

As such, they concluded that a biscuit with a ‘healthy looking’ texture is considered to be a negative attribute in that it reduces the perceived tastiness, a key criteria for purchasing it.

Far-reaching propositions

According to the researchers, this has implications for producers of many different food types, not just baked goods and snacks.

“The findings are really exciting as they give food manufacturers a means to design foods that can help consumers make healthier choices,”​ said Dr Cathrine Jansson-Boyd, lead author and a consumer psychologist at ARU.

Previous studies have shown that packaging, labelling and even the texture of a cup or plate can alter people’s perception of food, so the researchers wanted to find out how the appearance of the product could also affect perception.

The study – published in Food Quality and Preference – rated the opinions of 88 test subjects of six oat biscuits, each with a different texture. The group was tasked to rank healthiness, tastiness, crunchiness, chewiness, pleasantness and the likelihood of purchase – based only on visual appearance, not taste or touch.

According to Dr Jansson-Boyd, oat biscuits were chosen for the study as they can represent both a ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ snack to consumers.

What people think

The research found that the surface texture of the oat biscuit clearly communicated to the consumer how healthy it was likely to be.

Participants rated the biscuits with an explicit, pronounced texture as healthier.

Conversely, the less textured biscuits were perceived to be tastier, crunchier and more likely to be purchased.

“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,”​ said Dr Jansson-Boyd.

“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.”

To see is to hold: Using food surface textures to communicate product healthiness

Authors: Cathrine V. Jansson-Boyd and Mateja Kobescak

 Food Quality and Preference, 2020; 81: 103866

DOI: 10.1016/j.foodqual.2019.103866