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Consumers seek out high-calorie foods in tough times, study finds

By Nathan Gray, 11-Feb-2013

Related topics: Carbohydrates and fibres (sugar, starches), Science, Sugar, salt and fat reduction

Do tough times mean expanding waistlines? New research suggests that hardship in life can lead to 40% increase in high-calorie food intake.

Could the economic crashes could cause people to pile on the pounds? According to this new research, it could. Writing in the journal Psychological Science a team of US researchers has suggested that when there is a perception of tough times, people tend to seek higher-calorie foods that will keep them satisfied longer.

Led by Juliano Laran from the University of Miami School of Business Administration, USA,  study finds that when subconsciously primed with messages of austerity and economic hardship, a ‘live for today’ impulse is triggered that causes people to consume nearly 40% more food than when compared to a control group primed with neutral words.

Laran warned that the finding of the study come at a time when nations face an ‘onslaught’ of negative news messages including weak economies, gun violence, war, and political divides, “just to name a few problem areas.”

"Now that we know this sort of messaging causes people to seek out more calories out of a survival instinct, it would be wise for those looking to kick off a healthier new year to tune out news for a while,” he said.

Loran and hits team added that when the consumers primed with the ‘tough times’ messages were then told the food they were sampling was low-calorie, they consumed roughly 25% less of it.

"It is clear from the studies that taste was not what caused the reactions, it was a longing for calories," explained Laran.

"These findings could have positive implications for individuals in the health care field, government campaigns on nutrition, and companies promoting wellness,” he said. “And, certainly beware of savvy food marketers bearing bad news."

Study details

Laran and his colleagues invited study consumers to join in a taste test for a new kind of M&M. Half the participants were given a bowl of the new candy and were told that the secret ingredient was a new, high-calorie chocolate. The other half of the participants also received a bowl of M&Ms but were told the new chocolate was low-calorie. All of the participants were told that they could sample the product in order to complete a taste test evaluation form.

In reality, there was no difference in the M&Ms that the two groups were given to taste. The researchers were actually measuring how much participants consumed after they were exposed to posters containing either neutral sentences or sentences related to struggle and adversity.

The team noted explained that those who were subconsciously primed to think about struggle and adversity ate closer to 70% more of the ‘higher-calorie candy’ vs. ‘the lower-calorie’ option, while those primed with neutral words did not significantly differ in the amount of M&M's consumed.

Laran suggested that this may be because people place a higher value on food with more calories if they perceive that food resources are scarce.