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Monique Keiran: Beware of snack-food manipulations

Nature Boy waved a bag of potato chips at me. “No, thanks. I’m not hungry,” I answered. “But when you see this bag, how do you feel? Do you feel a twinge of guilt? Do you feel nostalgic?” “Actually, right now, I feel puzzled and exasperated.

Nature Boy waved a bag of potato chips at me. “No, thanks. I’m not hungry,” I answered.

“But when you see this bag, how do you feel? Do you feel a twinge of guilt? Do you feel nostalgic?”

“Actually, right now, I feel puzzled and exasperated.”

Nature Boy’s household psychological experiment came after he had read about neuromarketing, a field of study that examines how the sight of certain products triggers specific and not-always-expected emotional responses deep within people’s brains.

That’s the neuro-part of the field. The marketing part comes when companies use that information to design, package and position products to increase sales.

One heralded study on behalf of Frito-Lay, makers of Doritos, Cheetos and Tostitos and seemingly countless other snack foods, scanned women’s brains while showing them pictures of Frito-Lay products. Previous research had indicated women tended to prefer sweet snacks or — horrors! — healthy foods like fruit and vegetables instead of salty snacks. Naturally, the company wanted to overcome that unprofitable wrong-headedness.

The researchers analyzing the live-action brain scans found that, at the sight of shiny yellow chip bags, the part of the women’s brains that is associated with guilt lit up and started to party.

It was a eureka moment for the snack-food company. Frito-Lay went on to launch a repackaged, “guilt-free” line of snacks that featured single-serving portions and baked snacks. The new packaging incorporated matte finishes, neutral colours and pictures of whole potatoes, thereby bypassing the guilt response and leading to an eight per cent increase in company profits the following year.

In another study, the reward centres in the brains of half of the volunteers taking the Pepsi Challenge inside a brain-scanning machine lit up at the taste of Pepsi, indicating they preferred the taste of Pepsi. But when the volunteers were told beforehand which drink was which, the regions in their brains responsible for memory and emotion came into play in Coke’s favour and trumped taste preference.

In less high-tech fields, scientists are also looking into how colour, words, sounds and even touch influence general perception of taste and flavour.

For example, psychologists have found that packaging that includes rounded shapes and lettering helps to make people think foods taste sweet. When those same sweet foods are packaged with angular shapes and lettering, study participants found the foods less sweet. Sour foods, on the other hand, tasted sourer when the packaging had an angular theme.

The influence of other senses on taste extends to a product’s own shape. Cadbury discovered this for itself in 2013, when it changed the shape of its Dairy Milk Chocolate bars. Although the chocolate’s recipe remained untouched, consumers complained that the chocolate tasted different.

Even the sounds of product names influence taste perception. Consumers tend to enjoy, for instance, dark or bittersweet chocolate more when the words associated with it contain sharp-sounding consonants (T, K, for example). Words with soft sounds (L and M) pair better with sweeter, creamier chocolate products.

These results show how our expectations of a food are affected by presentation details most of us are unaware of. Such details can reinforce our expectations of food products, and subtly nudge our experiences of the food.

By incorporating high-tech brain imaging and psychology into marketing, it seems as if makers of junk food are stacking the odds against healthy eating. Indeed, the corporate world is trying to sway consumer choices in every way it can.

However, we must remember that the Frito-Lays, Coca-Colas and Cadburys of the world can control only a small part of our consumer-choice experience. They can’t control, for instance, the time of day we buy groceries, how much time we allot for shopping, what kind of day we’ve had before we get there and expect to have afterward, or the details of the environments in which we will be eating their products.

They also can’t control how savvy and informed we are about product marketing. Being aware of the many ways in which we can be manipulated provides some defence against marketing efforts.

However, it might not provide much defence against our own deep, conflicted emotions regarding potato chips or chocolate.

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