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Staying in touch with food preferences

Cathrine V. Jansson-Boyd of Anglia Ruskin University discusses why the tactile qualities of food and its packaging are so important in determining how consumers perceive different foods.

Introduction

When people talk about food they do not usually mention how it ‘feels’ or the specific textures present. However, the reality is that the tactile properties of food are important in that they help guide peoples’ perception of food products. Everything people feel whilst eating matters, be it weight, temperature or texture.

When discussing food and touch it is worth mentioning that there are multiple aspects of touch that help to generate specific food perceptions. Firstly, there is the most obvious kind of touch, the one we experience whilst eating, when areas in the mouth are actually touched by the food. Secondly, there is tactile input through our hands, i.e. how the food feels upon touch. Finally, there is the touch of the packaging which contains the food. All three areas contribute to the generation of food perception.

In the past few decades there has been a plethora of scientific evidence all pointing in the direction that touch is hugely influential in moulding consumer perception. The tactile cues are often not visually detectable; even if consumers can see the cues, they may not realise that they are receiving tactile information. Having a better understanding of this area can help marketers, food manufacturers and product developers to make food appear more appealing, to create an overall more rounded and interesting experience and to increase the likelihood of consumption. These days consumers are sophisticated and often have high expectations of their food.

This article provides an outline of some of the tactile research conducted to date that is applicable to further the understanding of the role of touch in food perception. Here, the primary focus is on the role of our hands in touching food and food packaging.

Whilst it may be obvious that products need to ‘look’ good, it is perhaps less obvious that textures can also influence the way in which products are perceived.

Beauty is no longer only in the eye of the beholder

Undisputedly, aesthetics are paramount when it comes to how products are perceived.  Consumer researchers usually recognise that products are often not purchased for their practicality but for their aesthetic appeal. Whilst it may be obvious that products need to ‘look’ good, it is perhaps less obvious that textures can also influence the way in which products are perceived.

In a pioneering study conducted in 2007, a team from Anglia Ruskin University looked at the influence of touch upon aesthetic evaluation[1]. It was demonstrated that if you alter how products feel, the perception of attractiveness is also changed as a consequence of the texture modification (see Figure 1). Furthermore, previous experiences of how something felt are closely aligned to whether people think that an item is attractive. However, it was also found that touching something that feels highly unusual causes the attractiveness rating to decrease, but people do make more use of the tactile input to determine overall likeability.

These findings have since been demonstrated using a wide range of products including food, and thus showing that it appears to be a rule that can be broadly applied to most product categories. For example, how food feels when touching it can modulate the oral perception of texture[2]. In this study participants bit into fresh or stale pretzels. The findings demonstrated that the tactile feel of the pretzel (whilst held in the hand) affects the way in which the pretzel is perceived orally. Basically, the softer the pretzel was in the hand, the staler it was perceived to be in the mouth, demonstrating the influence of tactile information on food perception.

Other researchers have also confirmed that how a product feels to touch, even though not directly related to the actual food or beverage, can affect perception of what is being tasted. For example, it was found that the quality of a cup from which people drank water changed their perception of the water[3]. The water was viewed as being of better quality when participants drank it through a straw and were not allowed to touch or hold a flimsy plastic cup in which the water was served.

Other studies have also identified that components, such as the shape of a wine glass, can affect flavour release and that shapes and sizes of containers can play a role in how much of the content is consumed. Similarly, this has been found for other products and at times it can even impact on satiety. This demonstrates that the choice of packaging materials is important as it is a determinant of product perception.

Figure 1 A DVD box was used in Jansson-Boyd & Marlow’s (2007) study.
Participants evaluated the box on its aesthetic appeal. The box had one of three
different textures on the back. When participants could both see and touch the box
it was rated as more attractive with the normal texture.

Food, touch and the other senses

When it comes to food, tactile properties are closely connected to sound. It is important to recognise that most consumers do not experience different sensory inputs in isolation, but they are in fact processed simultaneously. This means that it is essential to understand how touch is influenced by input from other modalities. In particular, sounds that are related to food consumption, such as those heard whilst eating, may be linked to crispness and freshness in foods, such as chips and carrots[4]. Interestingly, the perception of specific sound related properties can be altered by using tactile properties. For example, perceived crispness of chips can be altered by changing the sound of the packaging that people hold whilst eating it[5] thus demonstrating that touch can be used as a tool to reinforce or alter a particular food related sound, and by doing so, change perception.

When presenting consumers with multi-modal information, it is crucial that the combined sensory inputs actually generate the desired perception. Odour and taste are usually perceived together for food products and thus it is easy to imagine that if a food item tastes very different from the smell, it has a negative impact upon the evaluation of the particular food. This is also very much the case for touch and thus it is important to be aware of the kind of touch-related properties that are deemed to be ‘congruent’ with a food item. Whether this be the actual texture and temperature of the item or indeed the packaging in which it comes, it is important that these are perceived as congruent to ensure that a positive perception occurs. In regard to ‘congruent’ tactile properties, it seems that our expectations of how something should feel to touch is very much based on previous experiences. Thus, incongruency may in many cases be simply not the norm[1]. Hence, you may ask whether the feel of a bottle is actually going to reinforce the perception of taste (Figure 2).

Figure 2 Imagine that you are about to pick a bottle that is going to represent a new mineral water that you are launching.
• Which bottle would you pick?
• Does it matter what shape it is?
• How it may feel to hold in your hand?
• What about the way it looks?
• Does the colour matter?
Perhaps you would be more likely to pick A over B as green is not usually congruent with water. Neither is the shape of bottle B congruent with our perception of what a water bottle looks like. Hopefully, you would pick the bottle that best represents a water bottle from a visual and tactile perspective and ensure that they are congruent.

Using tactile information visually

As we know, consumers normally rely on their visual input to make an instant overall assessment of a product. This is particularly applicable to fast moving consumer goods in that shoppers do not really have the time or interest to consider each one of their purchases in detail. Hence, the best way to get a tactile message across is through the means of vision. There is currently limited research on exactly how to communicate tactile information through vision, but it can be achieved[6].

One easy way of doing so is by reinforcing key aspects of how the manufacturer wants the product to be perceived, for instance, as can be noted from Figure 3, by putting crumbs on a packet to indicate the crunchiness of the product.

The more visually prominent the crumbs are on the packet, the more it can satisfy people who have a high need to touch (as this varies from person to person) and thus they can make a judgement in regard to how crunchy the biscuit actually feels. Consumers can therefore quickly see, but without having to engage in any extensive and tiresome mental elaboration, that the product is crunchy. Equally in terms of advertising, tactile cues can be used to remind people indirectly of what something may feel like, such as Andrex toilet tissue using labrador puppies in its marketing campaigns to create a visual association between the softness of the puppy and the toilet paper.

It is important to be aware of the kind of touch-related properties that are deemed to be ‘congruent’ with a food item. Whether this be the actual texture and temperature of the item or indeed the packaging in which it comes.

Figure 3 The pictures of biscuit boxes above, show a visual incorporation of tactile cues, ‘crumbs’, so that consumers are effectively informed that the product has a ‘crunchy’ texture.

Why touch is such an important sense?

There are several reasons why touch is such an important sense and two in particular that are undoubtedly central to food perception:

1. Touch has the ability to alter the way in which food products are perceived because it can rapidly and correctly identify what something is[7]. This also seems to translate well into how people perceive food in their mouths. It has even been found that children who are more sensitive to tactile input in general are also more sensitive to tactile stimulation in their mouths. Thus, sensitivity to touch appears to play a role in acceptance of food[8]. If this relationship can be explored in more detail it might help to encourage young ‘fuzzy’ eaters to overcome their picky eating patterns. Furthermore, it may possibly be a stepping stone to help those with more serious eating disorders to feel more comfortable consuming different types of foods.

2. Touch is connected to emotive experiences. There are now many neuroscience-based studies that clearly connect touch and emotion. Specifically, it seems that touch encourages a form of emotional attachment in consumers[9], which effectively means that consumers become more ‘involved’ with the products they touch. When people touch something, they base their evaluations on the emotions experienced. At least partially, this is likely to explain why touch tends to increase the perceived value of a product. The fact that emotions are triggered by touch is not something that people are aware of, instead the emotions are experienced at a subconscious level.

It is beyond the scope of this article to present all the scientifically based results that have emerged in the last couple of decades to provide a better understanding of how the tactile sense influences consumer food perception. Nevertheless, it should be evident from the studies outlined that it can most certainly play a key role in how food is perceived. There are still some questions that need addressing before we have a clear picture of how to alter specific elements of touch, whether it be food texture or packaging, in order to get a desired outcome. But in the next ten or so years it is likely that a road map will emerge that can be used by food manufacturers and marketers that want to use touch as their chosen modality to communicate a specific food message.

Cathrine V. Jansson-Boyd

Reader in Consumer Psychology

Anglia Ruskin University, East Road, Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, CB1 1P.

Email: Cathrine.Jansson@anglia.ac.uk

References

1 Jansson-Boyd, C., & Marlow, N. (2007). Not only in the eye of the beholder: Tactile information can affect aesthetic evaluation. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 1(3), 170-173.

 

2 Barnett-Cowan, M. (2010). An illusion you can sink your teeth into: Haptic cues modulate the perceived freshness and crispness of pretzels. Perception, 39(12), 1684-1686.

 

3 Krishna, A., & Morrin, M. (2008). Does touch affect taste? The perceptual transfer of product container haptic cues. Journal of Consumer Research, 34(6), 807-818.

 

4 Masuda, M., & Okajima, K. (2011). Added mastication sound affects food texture and pleasantness. i-Perception, 2(8), 949-949.

 

5 Spence, C., Shankar, M. U., & Blumenthal, H. (2011). ‘Sound bites’: Auditory contributions to the perception and consumption of food and drink. In In F. Bacci & D. Mecher (Eds.), Art and the senses (pp. 207–238). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

 

6 Jansson-Boyd, C. V. (2011). Touch matters: exploring the relationship between consumption and tactile interaction. Social Semiotics, 21(4), 531-546.

 

7 Klatzky, R. L., Lederman, S. J., & Metzger, V. A. (1985). Identifying objects by touch: An “expert system”. Perception & psychophysics, 37(4), 299-302.

 

8 Nederkoorn, C., Jansen, A., & Havermans, R. C. (2015). Feel your food. The influence of tactile sensitivity on picky eating in children. Appetite, 84, 7-10.

 

9 Atakan, S. S. (2014). Consumer response to product construction: The role of haptic stimulation. International Journal of Consumer Studies, 38(6), 586-592.



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