Food cues undermine healthy eating choices: study

Bakers Journal
January 02, 2018
Written by Bakers Journal
Amsterdam, Netherlands – When people encounter stimuli they have learned to associate with certain snacks, they tend to choose those products, even when they know these are unhealthy, according to research carried out by psychologists from the University of Amsterdam.

Researchers Aukje Verhoeven, Poppy Watson and Sanne de Wit investigated the effects of health warnings on food choices in the presence or absence of food-associated stimuli, the university said in a news release. This includes every kind of stimuli associated with food, among them advertisements that trigger thoughts of a tasty snack or the sight or smell of food that leads to craving.

Good intentions
"Health warnings often make people want to choose healthier food products, yet many still end up picking unhealthy food products," Verhoeven said in the release. "We suspected this might partly be due to the fact that people learn to associate specific cues in their environment with certain food choices. For example, eating a cheeseburger regularly occurs in the visual presence of a large logo M. This causes a strong association between the stimulus (the logo) and the rewarding experience of eating a cheeseburger. Simply seeing an M eventually causes us to crave a burger and triggers a learned behaviour to head to a fast-food restaurant. Unhealthy choices are therefore automatically activated by learned associations, making health warnings, which focus on conscious choices, ineffective."

To test their hypothesis, the researchers used a specific computer task, the Pavlovian-instrumental transfer, in a controlled setting to simulate the learning processes between certain (food) choices and environmental stimuli in subjects. "Health warnings for healthy food choices only seem to be effective in an environment where no food cues are present. Whenever stimuli are present which people have come to associate with certain snacks, they choose the accompanying (unhealthy) food product, even when they know it is unhealthy or aren’t really craving that food product. It didn’t matter whether we alerted the subjects before or after they learned the associations with food cues," Verhoeven said.

The study, entitled "Failing to pay heed to health warnings in a food-associated environment," was published in the journal Appetite, on Jan. 1.  

Promoting healthy food choices
How do you ensure people don’t just have the intention to buy healthier food products but actually go ahead and do so? The researchers suggest decreasing the level of food-associated stimuli people, and children in particular, are exposed to. One way to do this would be to decrease the amount of advertising for unhealthy foods. Also, the results suggest that these processes could in turn stimulate the choice of healthy products.

Verhoeven said it is worthwhile exposing people to healthy food products together with certain environmental cues more often, for example by showing more advertisements for healthy products. Placing healthy products at the front in canteens or replacing chocolate bars with apples and healthy snacks at the cash register could help shape the environment to make healthy choices easier to make.

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