Is food too sweet for our tastes?
Research from the Monell Center in the US analysed nearly 400,000 commercial food product reviews posted by Amazon customers to gain insight into the food choices that people make. The findings reveal that many people find the foods in today’s marketplace to be too sweet.
“This is the first study of this scale to study food choice beyond the artificial constraints of the laboratory,” said study lead author Danielle Reed, PhD, a behavioural geneticist at Monell. “Sweet was the most frequently mentioned taste quality and the reviewers definitively told us that human food is over-sweetened.”
The study used data posted on an open-source data science site to examine 393,568 unique food reviews of 67,553 products posted by 256,043 Amazon customers over a 10-year period. Using a sophisticated statistical modelling program to identify words related to taste, texture, odour, spiciness, cost, health and customer service, the scientists computed the number of reviews that mentioned each of these categories.
“Reading and synthesising almost 400,000 reviews would essentially be impossible for a human team, but recent developments in machine learning gave us the ability to understand both which words are present and also their underlying semantic meaning,” said study co-author Joel Mainland, PhD, an olfactory neurobiologist at Monell.
Drilling down, the scientists found that sweet taste was mentioned in 11% of product reviews, almost three times more often than bitter. Saltiness was rarely mentioned, a somewhat surprising finding in light of public health concerns about excess salt consumption.
Seeking to better understand individual differences in how people respond to a given food, the scientists also looked at responses to the 10 products that received the widest range of ratings, as defined by the variability in the number of stars the product received. They identified two factors that tended to account for polarising reviews related to a product: product reformulation and differing perspectives on the product’s taste. With regard to taste, people often rated the sweetness of a product differently. Response to a product’s smell also contributed to differences in opinion about a particular product.
“Genetic differences in taste or olfactory receptor sensitivity may help account for the extreme reactions that some products get,” said Reed. “Looking at the responses to polarising foods could be a way to increase understanding of the biology of personal differences in food choice.”
Together, the findings illustrate the potential uses of big-data approaches and consumer reviews to advance sensory nutrition, an emerging field that integrates knowledge from sensory science with nutrition and dietetics to improve health. Moving forward, similar methods may inform approaches to personalised nutrition that can match a person’s sensory responses to inform healthier food choices.
‘Sensory nutrition: The role of taste in the reviews of commercial food products’ has been published in the journal Physiology & Behavior.
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