Taste perceptions shaped by national cultures, say researchers

By Nathan Gray

- Last updated on GMT

Are unhealthy 'junk foods' really tastier than healthy foods? Its all in our culture, reveal the researchers.
Are unhealthy 'junk foods' really tastier than healthy foods? Its all in our culture, reveal the researchers.

Related tags Unhealthy food Nutrition Junk food France Us

Is junk food really more flavoursome than healthy fare? It all depends on cultural perceptions, say researchers.

The study – published in Food Quality and Preference​ – investigated intercultural differences in food perception, focusing particularly on how French and US populations associate certain foods with the concept of ‘tastiness’.

Led by Carolina Werle from the Grenoble Ecole de Management, France, the researchers reveal that perceptions of appetising food are different between people in France and the USA – with many Americans implicitly linking unhealthy food choices with tastiness, while the opposite is true in French people.

“Recent research suggests that one factor explaining the preference for highly caloric food is the ‘unhealthy=tasty’ intuition,”​ explain the researchers, who note that previous research has shown American consumers tend to over-consume foods perceived as unhealthy because they spontaneously and unconsciously consider such foods to be more delicious than healthy food.

However, the team notice that such findings do not hold true for many other national populations, including the French.

“Our first study demonstrates that the opposite intuition exists in France: unhealthy food is spontaneously associated with bad taste, while healthy food is linked to tastiness,”​ reveal Werle and her team.

They argue that their findings mean that a ‘Good for health’ on food packaging would have polar effects in different cultures.

“Indeed, such label could have a good impact on the taste perceptions for French consumers whereas American consumers could consider the product to be untasty,”​ said the researchers. “Future research should address this question.”

Study details

The authors explain that results from their study indicate that the ‘healthy=tasty’ intuition predominates in France, whilst the ‘unhealthy=tasty’​ American perception identified by previous research may vary cross-culturally.

“These results expand previous research on intercultural differences in food perceptions because they show that implicit associations are stronger and sometimes contradictory with explicit beliefs: even participants that believed that unhealthy foods are tastier had a stronger healthy=tasty implicit intuition,”​ reveal the researchers, who note that in a second part of the study indicate that a neutral food described as healthy is considered tastier, more pleasurable and of better quality than when it is described as unhealthy.

“From a theoretical standpoint, this research extends knowledge on intercultural differences in food perceptions. It demonstrates that implicit associations between tastiness and healthiness are contradictory in France and in the USA. This could be one potential explanation for differences in the progression of obesity in both countries,”​ said the authors.

The French paradox?

Werle says the clear evidence that French and US populations have very different relationships and representations to food.

For instance, the ‘French Paradox’: which noted that even though the French eat relatively more unhealthy foods (more butter, for instance) than Americans, they have lower levels of obesity and fewer heart disease problems.

“Understanding the link between food heritage and pleasure in eating is one possible approach to understand food perceptions,”​ noted Werle. “Therefore, differences established in adult life might be a consequence of different associations with food existing in each country.”

Source: Food Quality and Preference
Published online ahead of print, doi: 10.1016/j.foodqual.2012.07.007
“Unhealthy Food is Not Tastier for Everybody: The “Healthy=Tasty” French Intuition”
Authors: Carolina O.C. Werle, Olivier Trendel, Gauthier Ardito

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