July 4, 2014
By Julie Fitz-Gerald
A new study in the Journal of Consumer Research may have you
reconsidering the texture of your product based on your target consumer
A new study in the Journal of Consumer Research may have you reconsidering the texture of your product based on your target consumer group. The study, “Something to Chew On: The Effects of Oral Haptics on Mastication, Orosensory Perception, and Calorie Estimation”, found that people believe foods that are either hard or have a rough texture have fewer calories than softer, chewier options.
“We studied the link between how a food feels in your mouth and the amount we eat, the types of food we choose, and how many calories we think we are consuming,” write authors Dipayan Biswas, Courtney Szocs (both University of South Florida), Aradhna Krishna (University of Michigan), and Donald R. Lehmann (Columbia University).
The researchers conducted five laboratory studies with a total of 407 participants, asking them to sample foods that were hard, soft, rough, or smooth and then measured calorie estimations for the food.
“For one lab study, we teamed up with a chocolate, store in Tampa, Florida and the owner of the store made the same chocolate, either softer or harder. The chemical composition wasn’t changed. The taste was the same, but people in the main experiment, when they sampled the harder chocolate they rated it lower in calories than when they had the softer chocolate. Anything that was smooth or soft was perceived as much higher in calories than when it was rough or hard,” explains Biswas, associate professor of marketing at the University of South Florida and editor of the Journal of Consumer Marketing.
In another lab study, researchers asked participants to watch and evaluate a series of television ads. As tokens of appreciation, participants were given cups filled with bite-sized brownie bits. Half of the group was not asked anything about the brownies, while the other half was asked about the calorie content of the brownies. Within each of these two groups, half of the participants were given soft brownie bits and the other half received hard brownie bits.
“We found in the mindless eating context, people preferred the softer brownies. Watching the ads, they ate mindlessly as much as they wanted. What we found out was that in this mindless eating context people ate more of the soft brownies than the hard brownies. Interestingly, in the other group, when we asked them to focus on the calorie estimation, people ended up eating more of the hard brownies compared to people who had the soft brownies,” Biswas says.
From a marketing standpoint, the findings were exciting.
“There are two things here: One is that people have a mental association between texture and calories, so that’s one factor. The other one is how much effort it takes for chewing. Foods that are harder require more chewing effort, so more effort on the part of the consumer.”
It would appear that the findings have created a bit of a predicament for the food industry. When consumers are simply enjoying a food for its pleasing taste and texture, softer and smoother products take the prize. However, health-conscious consumers react in an opposite fashion, preferring a product with harder and rougher characteristics.
“From a bakery point of view, it depends on who your target customer is. If it’s customers eating mindlessly, not worrying about calories, then a softer texture is best. But if your target customer group is watching their calories, then a harder texture would make better business sense. A lot of bakeries may have both target groups.”
Consumers adore their favourite bakeries for the delights they offer, but the health and wellness trend that has also become well-entrenched in baking. Based on “Something to Chew On”, staying true to the industry’s roots while also offering healthier options will create the perfect recipe for success.
Although the study is only now being published, its co-authors have been presenting their findings for the last couple of years and Biswas says he has already noticed a change in marketing tactics by other food industry sectors.
“In the last year and half, a few companies have started emphasizing texture. Case in point, when Burger King launched their “Satisfries” –they have much lower calories than their regular fries – interestingly the Satisfries have a ridged texture, what we would call a rough texture, as opposed to their regular fries that are high in calories with a smooth texture. So, they are doing that from a business point of view for the health conscious customers wanting various calorie options. It’s a recent example of a company that has actually carried this through into their marketing practice,” Biswas explains.
“Another example is a brand called SRS. On their packages what we noticed –and it’s a pretty recent phenomenon –is they’re emphasizing the hardness of their product. It’s hard and crunchy and they are positioning themselves as a healthy alternative in terms of food options. So again, these are things that companies can do to target health-conscious customers, which is a growing segment of the population.”
The correlation between texture and calorie perception is an exciting find for the food industry, particularly the bakery sector where texture is paramount.
Julie Fitz-Gerald is a freelance writer based in Uxbridge, Ont., and a regular contributor to Bakers Journal.
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