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Eating with our eyes — our perception of food isn’t a simple thing

What consumers perceive as tasty and nutritious is proving to be a lot more complicated than we ever thought

There are many food and consumer trends that keep farmers grappling with providing the right product.

Buying food is based on many things: health consciousness, price, flavour and taste, smell, and presentation. From packaging to ‘gastrophysics,’ there are some basics to understand about our ever-challenging task of producing and selling food.

I listened to a fascinating presentation by Charles Spence, a professor of experimental psychology at Oxford University, who claims “the pleasures of the table reside in the mind — not the mouth.” He’s written a book on gastrophysics — how our perception of food changes our expectations of it.

For example, if you make ice cream smell like bacon, consumers will claim there is a bacon taste. Smell or scent is very important. I know I like to have oatmeal, bananas, cream, brown sugar, and cinnamon in the Crock-Pot during the night if I have company staying over. Even if you don’t eat oatmeal, the smell of that combination sets the room at ease and everything seems to taste better, even the coffee.

Shape is also important — Spence claims a round dessert is perceived as being sweeter than a square one. This is likely why cookies fly off the plate and pie is a favourite over a cake. Even the crunch of potato chips makes a difference (people say crunchy varieties taste better).

If we eat first with our eyes, then presentation is very important.

The right atmosphere allows for folks to relax and savour the menu. When people eat with heavy cutlery, they claim the food is delicious and flowers or candles always make for a lovely table. On the farm, it is easy to have flowers on the table and to use a fresh tablecloth to create a relaxing atmosphere. In fact, Spence claims that emulating nature is critical and that is why so many folks love home-cooked meals on the farm. Even if the veggies were bought at a store, if there is a garden in sight, it pushes the mind to assume there is a relationship between the garden and the food that is served.

I have sat at ‘living tables’ in Europe where the herbs and flowers grow in a groove in the middle of the table (sometimes also referred to as river tables, with natural stones or shells inset in the middle), and the food was outstanding. Did my mind predetermine it would be so?

There are, of course, other considerations when looking at why consumers buy what they buy and eat what they eat.

A product likely will not come home unless it is deemed as healthy, according to Steven Evans, senior consumer insight analyst with the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board in the U.K. In its latest consumer report, the agency found that consumers will pay five per cent more if they deem a product to be healthy.

The question is: What constitutes health?

From the buyer’s perspective, the biggest drivers in health are a high fibre content followed by whole grains; a reduction in salt and sugar; and no artificial flavourings. This is interesting because artificial flavourings also spur the mind into believing something will taste good — so there is a bit of a contradiction here between sensory science and health-conscious buying. Low fat content is important as is high protein, but that does not translate into higher demand for meat products as consumers still believe a healthy diet contains less meat.

Controlling what goes on the plate is done by making meals from scratch, but that cannot be taken literally either as ‘scratch’ means ready to assemble. So sliced deli turkey with a bagged salad and an apple is cooking from scratch as long as there is a reduction in sugar, salt, and fat. The salad may have cranberries or blueberries and nuts added to bring up the fibre.

In the U.K., the move towards health and organic foods has wavered and consumers want to identify where a product came from and how it was produced. In the stores I visited, the farmer ID or location was clearly labelled on the bag, box, or bin — as was an animal welfare claim or a note from the farmer. For example, a jug of milk had a “Fair for Farmers Guarantee” label with an animal welfare claim and a note and picture from the farmer. A lot of information on a quart of milk!

This brings us full circle to the importance of telling the story.

From gastrophysics to geography, most experts and farmers at the conference I attended in Nottingham agreed that the story behind the food is the real connection between producers and consumers, and overrides all other perceived reasons to purchase.

That requires a visibility and vulnerability that conventional farming is not accustomed to.

But the new generation of farmers get this. They are willing to be part of the process of ensuring that whatever consumers think, smell, taste, feel, hear, drink, or eat should be an exceptional experience.

About the author

AF Columnist

Brenda Schoepp is a farmer from Alberta who works as an international mentor and motivational speaker. She can be contacted through her website at www.brendaschoepp.com. All rights reserved.

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