Unhealthy foods perceived as tastier when more plentiful, study finds

Two experiments in Austria and Germany with pictures of meals containing healthy and unhealthy foods indicated that people tend to believe that unhealthy foods taste better when more unhealthy foods are available. This finding emerged despite the presentation of both healthy and unhealthy foods as equally tasty on average. The research was published in the journal he eats.

Scientists usually distinguish between healthy and unhealthy foods. Healthy foods are usually those that provide a substantial amount of essential nutrients, such as vitamins, minerals, fiber, and healthy fats, relative to their calorie content. Examples include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and lean proteins. These foods are crucial for supporting bodily functions and promoting good health. They help maintain weight and regulate metabolism. Research also links consumption of these foods to a reduced risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer.

Unhealthy foods, on the other hand, are usually high in calories but low in nutritional value. These foods often contain excessive amounts of added sugars, unhealthy fats and sodium. Some common examples are processed snacks, sugary drinks, fast food and products with a high level of artificial additives. Frequent consumption of these foods is associated with several health problems, including obesity, heart disease, hypertension, and type 2 diabetes.

Despite these health implications, unhealthy foods are often designed to be highly palatable, incorporating various additives specifically to enhance their taste. Numerous studies have confirmed that people generally believe that unhealthy foods taste better than healthy ones. People may perceive a trade-off between health and taste, leading them to assume that healthier options are less tasty.

The study’s lead researcher, Sonja Kunz, along with her team, sought to investigate whether individuals develop misconceptions about the relationship between health and taste from a single context or by comparing different scenarios.

“According to widespread secular belief, people think that healthy food can’t be tasty, which is puzzling because there are so many healthy and tasty food options,” explained Kunz, a postdoctoral researcher and professor at the University of Vienna . “We wanted to better understand why people still have these negative views about healthy food. This would help us encourage people to eat healthy without feeling like they need to sacrifice taste.”

The researchers theorized that the belief that “unhealthy equals tasty” arises primarily in situations where people often encounter tasty but unhealthy foods. To explore this hypothesis, they conducted two experiments one in a laboratory and one online.

The first experiment involved 114 undergraduate psychology students at the University of Vienna and 21 volunteers, all of whom were native German speakers and who were not dieting at the time. Participants were asked to imagine tasting food from a newly opened restaurant. They saw images of supposed meals from this restaurant, each accompanied by ratings of the food’s taste and health.

After reviewing all meals, participants were asked to rate the overall healthiness and taste of the food offered at the restaurant. They also shared their beliefs about the relationship between health and taste in the restaurant, their general beliefs about this topic and their interest in health.

Not all participants saw the same meals. They were randomly divided into three groups: the first group saw mostly tasty and healthy foods, the second group saw mostly unhealthy and tasty foods, and the third group saw an equal number of tasty and untasty foods, as well as healthy and unhealthy. foods

The results of the first experiment indicated that participants developed a stronger association between unhealthy food and flavor when they were presented with healthier, tastier foods compared to when they saw healthy, tastier foods.

The second experiment was conducted online with 209 participants recruited through the TALK online access panel to represent the German population by age, gender, and region. The average age of the participants was 45 years and 49% were women. The setup was similar to the first experiment, but instead of a restaurant, participants imagined they were choosing food from a new delivery app called “Eats.” Also, instead of general beliefs about health and taste, the researchers measured participants’ Protestant ethic.

The Protestant ethic is a concept that refers to an individual’s commitment to diligence, discipline, and strong responsibility, often related to their moral and ethical position at work. Someone with a strong Protestant ethic shows a high level of dedication to hard work and ethical behavior in both their professional and personal lives.

The findings of the second experiment supported those of the first. The negative association between health and taste was stronger when participants saw more unhealthy and tasty foods than when they saw more healthy and tasty foods. Participants with a stronger Protestant ethic were slightly more inclined to believe that healthy food tastes better. But the findings held even after controlling for the Protestant ethic.

“The main takeaway is that food environments with a lot of unhealthy foods can create illusions that unhealthy foods are tastier, even though this might be wrong. Therefore, policy makers should create food environments with many choices (not just some) of healthy foods,” Kunz told PsyPost.

The study contributes to the scientific understanding of how people form beliefs about food qualities. However, it also has limitations that need to be considered. Notably, the experiments only included images of food and presented health and taste data through star ratings. This is probably quite different from the way people make impressions about food in real life, where the actual taste and smell of food play a key role.

“We manipulated how many foods were healthy and tasty in the presented settings, but we don’t know how (un)healthy and tasty foods are distributed in real-life settings,” Kunz noted. “Furthermore, we presented participants with pictures of foods and told them whether they were healthy and tasty, but we do not know whether participants trusted this information and how they would rate the foods themselves.”

“We want to better understand how people form beliefs about food, specifically the relationship between health and taste, and how to change them to help people eat healthier. Ideally, this means using the study’s approach to design interventions in which food environments are changed to help consumers hold positive views about healthy eating.”

The paper, Seeing is miscree: consumers mistakenly believe that unhealthy food tastes better when there is more of it, was written by Sonja Kunz, Niklas Pivecka, Clara Dietachmair and Arnd Florack.

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