10 Dec 2021

Methods for exploring the links between emotions and food choices


Standing in front of a kitchen cupboard, a market stall or the shelves of a supermarket, how do consumers carry out their food choices? How are decisions made about the composition of a meal or a trolley?


According to experts, rational criteria (such as price, availability, or labels of quality) take second place to emotions in our decisions about food.


What links are there between food and emotions? What tools and methodologies can you use to evaluate these links? 


Emotions: what are we talking about?

The idea of an emotion is somewhat complex to define. And, indeed, it has been studied from the point of view of various academic disciplines: psychology, cognitive sciences, sociology, biology and neurosciences, etc.


Dominique Droger, consumer and sensory studies coordinator, and Virginie Herbreteau, research director in the sensory studies department of Actalia, gave us a few explanations concerning the definition of emotions in this article: distinct from ‘mood’ and ‘feeling’, emotions are short-lived and are provoked by a precise stimuli. “What we know about emotions is that they are primary reactions, they are uncontrolled and independent of cognition.”


Most researchers recognise today that there are 7 primary emotions: anger, sadness, joy, surprise, disgust, shame and fear. Dominique and Virginie explain: “These 7 emotions are not really linked to food: when are are eating a food, you are unlikely to feel fear or anger. However, certain emotions experienced, such as pleasure, can emerge from eating certain foods.”


Emotions and food: a number of links

Several connections exist between emotion and food.


On the one hand, emotions can have an impact on the choices of food that consumers want to eat – and in what quantity. Prior to 1980, the accepted model was that of Engel, Kollat and Blackwell that posited a logical, 5-step approach to decision-making: recognition of the problem, search for a solution, evaluation of the options, decision and purchase, post-purchase evaluation. Robert B. Zajonc, an American psychologist specialised in the construction of non-rational preferences in consumers, challenged this model with his own that suggested affective reaction as a separate process to cognition. Since then, many researchers have focused on the role of emotions in food behaviours, in relation to numerous parameters: memory, state of mind, intuition, search for an experience, pleasure, external pressures (time…), etc. It appears that the way that a consumption choice really operates is indeed often unconscious, and guided by an emotional feeling that the brand or the product evokes in the consumer.


“Now, we generally accept that emotions account for up to 80% of a consumer’s decision,” explain Dominique and Viriginie in this article


On the other hand, what a consumer eats can also be the source of emotional reactions. But while the link between “emotions” and “food desires” has already been widely studied (for exemple, in relation to bulimia or anorexia), the link between “food” and “expression of an emotion” has only recently generated scientific interest: we talk about this in an article on the EDULIA project that you can read here


Innovative assessment techniques

Traditionally, the main method used for measuring emotions provoked by food has been the self-report questionnaire. An article published in 2019 in Frontiers in Psychology (link here) made a complete overview of the assessment tools used in this case, by cross-referencing data from 101 articles published between 1997 and 2019, using 59 different measurement tools. The results of the report were very revealing: assessments: self-report questionnaires made up more than 60 of the studies.


To remove the innate barriers in the use of questionnaires (language, understanding of the instructions or the terminology used, the bias in self-reporting, etc.), other innovative methods have been developed by researchers. Here are two examples.


The use of emojis: lifting the language barrier

Some researchers have begun to use “emojis” (also known as smileys). This is the case for Sara Jaegera (The New Zealand Institute for Plant & Food Research Limited), Leticia Vidal, and Gastón Ares (from the Sensometrics & Consumer Science Centre, Instituto Polo Tecnológico de Pando, Facultad de Química, Universidad de la República, Uruguay).


They identified two main advantages to emojis: their interculturality, and the familiarity of consumers with emojis – in particular for younger test subjects. Indeed, 68% of 9-13 year-olds regularly use emojis: for them, it is a simple and intuitive tool, that is also fun to use. It is a non-verbal means of transmitting meaning and, therefore, emotions they feel, which makes it a tool well-adapted for very young children who have as yet limited vocabulary and language ability.


To better understand the pros and potential cons of emojis as a measurement tool, Julia Sick carried out an in depth study of this subject for the EDULIA program. She was able to develop a self-report assessment tool based on emojis for measuring the emotional reactions to food products, and to test the tools among pre-teens on existing food products. You can read more about the results of her research here.


Emotioning: testing the coherence of emotions in the promise and the tasting of a food product

At Actalia, an agrifood applied research centre, the discipline of emotioning has been under development since 2014, in order to analyse the emotional profile of a product and its packaging.


Emotioning can be applied to all types of products that play on the emotions: snacks, chocolates, festive drinks with or without alcohol etc. While it is widely used in the cosmetics and perfume sector, Dominique and Virginie regret that its use in the food sector remains largely under wraps: “fragrances can produce emotions, but the aromas or even the textures of foods can also carry emotional messages that it is important to take into account in the development of food products.”


“Our use of emotioning aims mainly to verify the coherence between a product and its packaging. Thanks to the use of scientific methods and panels of 80 to 100 consumers, the results of our analyses can give a lot of credence to a feeling or an intuition regarding the choice of a packaging or the positioning of a product. This can guide manufacturers in the right choice of packaging regarding the emotional component of how their product is consumed.”


Several studies carried out by Actalia have allowed food brands to reorient their packaging choices: for example, a savoury snack or a sparkling soft drink. “We compared the emotions generated visually from two packagings. And the difference was indeed very marked!” remembers Dominique and Virginie. “The new packaging imagined by the brand did not at all correspond to the tasting experience of the consumers, nor to their expectations.”


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