Health vs. Taste

Here at Diabetes Flashpoints, we’ve discussed the merits and pitfalls of various dietary recommendations, including following a low-carb diet, following the Mediterranean diet, going vegetarian, increasing protein in the diet, and reducing salt and sugar in the diet. The underlying assumption in any dietary recommendation, of course, is that people can freely choose what they eat. To some degree, of course, this is true — most adults have the final say about what goes into their mouth and stomach. But a recent study helps demonstrate how hard it is to overcome perceptions about taste when choosing, or rejecting, healthier food items.

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Conducted at the University of Kiel in Germany and published last fall by the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, the study was designed to find out how big of a role taste and nutrition information played in the food choices of self-described healthy and unhealthy eaters. As noted in an article on the study at DiabetesInControl.com, participants were given samples of different kinds of yogurt that contained different levels of sugar and fat. They were then given nutrition information about each kind of yogurt, and asked which kind they would buy if given the option. When asked about why they made their yogurt choice, self-described unhealthy eaters were less likely than healthy eaters to say that nutrition played a role in their decision — perhaps not a surprise. But less predictably, self-described healthy eaters weren’t all that likely to make a decision based on health information, also naming taste as the number-one reason for making their selection. Once they had formed a taste-based opinion and chosen a favorite, nutrition information didn’t make them change their mind about which yogurt they would buy.

The study’s authors note that an assumption that unhealthy food is tasty often plays a role in leading consumers toward less healthy options. But in this study, participants didn’t know how healthy a yogurt was when they sampled it (even though they might be able to guess). This suggests that actual taste, rather than an assumption about how a food will taste, may be the main reason why consumers choose certain unhealthy foods. It’s possible, though, that consumers could still be tricked into thinking a food tastes better if it has attractive packaging and isn’t marketed as a boring, healthy item. For this reason, the researchers recommend improving product packaging for healthier foods, as well as trying to improve the actual taste of these items.

How big of a role does taste play in your food decisions — is it always the dominant consideration, or do you sometimes sacrifice taste for a food that you know is better for you? Has your perception of what tastes good, and what doesn’t, changed at all over time? Do you think you make assumptions about taste and nutrition based on a product’s packaging? Do you think it’s possible to follow a healthy diet without sacrificing taste at all? Leave a comment below!

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