Food is a necessity for the survival of any species. In my experience, food is something I look forward to, from when I go to sleep at night to when I wake up in the morning: What am I going to eat today?
What started as a sole requirement for our existence has slowly grown to become an important part of many people’s lives – as a medium for expression, enjoyment, and culture.
This interest of food has sparked a multitude of studies into the production, preparation, and consumption of foods. What we will be talking about in this article is the relationship between food and touch.
For many cultures, eating with their hands is a norm. In Western culture, this is less common, although we indulge in direct contact with foods such as burgers, pizza, or some delicious wings.
Previous research into food consumption has established that food is evaluated and experienced in multiple sensory modalities. We know sensory input such as the visual (sight), the olfactory (smell), and the oral haptics (mouth feel) can bias our perception and consumption of food – but how?
To give a brief overview: Sensory processing occurs when the body gathers information from the mean of sensory input by way of neurons, glia, and synapses. Subsequently, this information is interpreted by the brain, which dictates a response.
Professor Adriana Madzharov, from the Stevens Institute of Technology, pondered about our experience between direct (using your hands) and indirect contact (using utensils) with food and how this might influence our enjoyment and consumption of food. “Could directly touching food with hands make it tastier and more desirable?” – this was investigated in a series of four studies.
In a first study, Madzharov invited 45 undergraduate students to a ‘food test’ where they were asked to sample, evaluate, and hold a cube of Muenster cheese before eating it. They were then asked a series of questions about their eating habits. Two conditions were given: half of the participants ate the cheese with their hands, whilst the other half were given an appetizer pick to eat with.
In this study, the most important finding was that individuals who apply self-control in their food consumption evaluated their food experience differently to other participants. A significant difference was found in the enjoyment of their food; they found the food more enjoyable when eating with their hands compared to eating using the pick. There was no effect for individuals who do not apply self-control.
In a second study, the ‘self-control’ or indulgence of the participants was controlled, by presenting them with scenarios in which they were assigned to one of these two eating styles. In the self-control group, they were told “imagine you have decided to be more conscious of what you eat for health benefits”, in the indulgence condition “imagine you have decided to worry less about your weight… and enjoy life more”. This second study replicated the findings of the first, participants primed with self-control evaluated the food more positively than those in the indulgent condition, when eating with their hands. “The mechanism driving this effect was the enhanced sensory experience that participants reported in the direct touch/self-control condition”.
The third and fourth study aimed to test whether touch affected the participants food consumption. In the third, they measured how much participants with self-control decided to eat when given the choice; they found a significant increase in consumption whilst using their hands compared to when using a pick. The fourth study controlled for enjoyment after a given amount of time, which remained the same.
These studies showed a significant effect of touch in individuals with ‘self-control’: when evaluating their enjoyment of food, and the amount they consume.
From a business point of view, these findings are interesting in terms of how restaurant managers could use this knowledge to their advantage and implement direct food eating to increase their revenue. From a psychological point of view, I can’t help but wonder how this could be applied in treatment centres for individuals suffering from eating disorders. Could this influence how much they enjoy and eat food; to, eventually, build back a healthy relationship with food?
We’re curious… What do you think? Feel free to express your opinions in the comments. We’d love to hear from you.
Article cited: Madzharov, A.V., 2019. Self-Control and Touch: When Does Direct Versus Indirect Touch Increase Hedonic Evaluations and Consumption of Food. Journal of Retailing, 95(4), pp.170–185.
Link to article: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jretai.2019.10.009
Edited by Cyrus Rohani-Shukla