Supermarket shelves are stacked from floor to ceiling with products aimed specifically at either men or women, from shampoo, perfume, clothing or shoes.
Food and beverage products, on the other hand, are mostly unisex. As the interest in personalised nutrition grows, are food marketers missing a trick by not developing packaged foods aimed at men and others for women?
According to Professor Charles Spence from the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at Oxford University, there is evidence that men and women do taste food differently.
Evidence from previous studies “clearly supports” the existence of a number of genetically-determined individual differences for the perception of a number of parameters, he writes in a review published in the peer-reviewed Food Quality and Preferences.
These are taste (gustation), smell (olfaction), trigeminal and oral-somatosensory stimulation and colour perception.
The colour of food – and even its packaging – is known to influence how its taste is perceived.
However, Spence argues that these genetically-determined individual differences do not clearly divide men and women with the exception of the visual differences.
Differences 'too slight'
“While it is true that women are somewhat more likely to be supertasters than men, the difference (34% vs 22%) is too slight to justify launching a food or beverage product specifically for women, or men.”
According to Spence, food marketers looking target food or drink product to a specific group of consumers would be better focusing on the specific individual difference - such as food for supertasters or drinks for the colour-blind - rather than trying to "justify a claim based on genetically-determined sex differences in sensory perception".
“That said, a number of examples have been documented in this review where sex differences in comfort foods, and in the conspicuous consumption of spicy food, would seem to have a psychological basis that likely emerges from the different sociocultural environments that men and women are exposed to over the course of development," he added.
“Given that this is most often the case, the danger is that any food or drink product that is explicitly targeted at one or other sex can all too easily be seen as supporting those sociocultural inequalities/differences.
“What is more, given the sexist food and beverage advertising of yesteryear, such approaches can all too easily come across as outdated.”
PepsiCo's 'Lady Doritos' gaffe
Nooyi said young guys love single-serve Doritos packs, noting “they lick their fingers with great glee and when they reach the bottom of the bag, they pour the little, broken pieces into their mouths, because they don’t want to lose that taste of the flavour and the broken chips in the bottom”.
Nooyi suggested that women do not do this.
"They don’t like to crunch too loudly in public... and they don’t lick their fingers generously and they don’t like to pour the little, broken pieces and the flavour into their mouth," she said.
“For women, [it's about] low-crunch, the full taste profile and not having so much of the flavour stick on the fingers ... and how can you put it in a purse? Because women love to carry a snack in their purse.”
Nooyi’s comments sparked rumours that PepsiCo planned to launch what was dubbed “Lady Doritos”.
Spence concluded: “When it comes to food and drink, rather than suggesting that the two sexes live in different taste worlds, it would seem more appropriate to suggest, as we have seen, that in fact men and women actually live in highly overlapping worlds of taste, and taste buds and other sensory receptors are not gendered.”
Sex-specific supplements are an easier sell
That said, there are some categories where differentiating between the sexes does hold appeal with consumers: nutritional products and supplements.
“What is more, the commentators in this area do not appear to have any problem with the idea that nutritional supplements should be targeted specifically at men and women […] Women need more iron than men, because they lose iron when menstruating,” Spence wrote.
Source: Food Quality and Preferences
“Do men and women really live in different taste worlds?”
Available online: doi.org/10.1016/j.foodqual.2018.12.002
Author: Charles Spence