Texture counts for a lot when we eat. New research, in the Journal of Consumer Research, says people assume that “hard” foods, such as raw vegetables, have fewer calories than “soft” foods, such as ice-cream. Calorie-counters tend towards those harder foods when planning their diet, and eat more of them altogether. This has big implications for the way food is designed.
As the researchers note, foods that are high in fat or calories (ice-cream, butter, cream cheese) do tend to be smoother, softer, and creamier than, say, raw vegetables and cereals, which tend to be crunchy and which generate more friction during chewing. They also tend to be lower in calories, and, more significantly, we think they’re healthier. Over time, those hard-is-healthy associations get reinforced.
The study reveals interesting decision-making processes that resulted from people’s biases about texture. Researchers conducted five experiments, in which they asked participants (students at the University of South Florida, where lead author Dipayan Biswas is an associate professor of marketing) to try foods that were hard, soft, rough or smooth. Then participants estimated how many calories were in those foods.
The students tended to believe that hard foods had fewer calories than their smooth or soft counterparts. But here’s the rub. In one experiment, participants were offered brownie bits that were either soft or hard. Left to their own devices, participants who received soft brownies ate more than those who received hard brownies. But when considering the calorie count in each brownie bit, participants who received hard hard brownies ate more.
This could have intriguing implications for food marketing, as the study notes. To get people to think of a product as rich and decadent, advertise how it will melt in your mouth. Low-fat frozen yogurt makers have already figured out that people want it to be as creamy as ice-cream. (Cold, tart FroYo is practically a cult in the U.S.)
If you want to reinforce the perception of a food as healthy or low-fat or low-cal, make it crunchy. Look how Burger King did it, say the researchers:
Interestingly, when Burger King recently launched its new lower-calorie French fries (labeled “Satisfries”), they gave these fries a rougher texture by making them crinkled (in comparison to the regular higher-calorie fries that have a smooth texture). Based on the results of our research, this seems like a sound business strategy since oral haptics [the mouthfeel] related to the rough-textured new fries will lead to perception of lower calories than if the fries had smooth textures.
As if we needed a justification for pretending French fries were a wise food choice.