Food Psychology For Food Design

13/12/2016 15:26

I want to tell you the story of how Food Design fell in love with Food Psychology.
Or better, let me tell you why food designers should fall in love with Food Psychology!

Let's start by clarifying these terms: Food Design is the design process that leads to innovation on products, services, or systems for food and eating: from production, procurement, preservation, and transportation, to preparation, presentation, consumption, and disposal.

Food Psychology is a term coined by Professor Brian Wansink, one of the most accomplished academics ever, and a brilliant researcher. It is the discipline that answers the questions: Why do we eat as much as we eat? Why do we eat what we eat? Why do we eat how we eat? It looks at the relationship between humans and food from a psychological and sometimes sociological perspective. It looks at how human beings behave around food, think about food, and sometimes don't think about food, looking at all the unconscious things we do but that we're not aware of.

Which means that this discipline is a great resource for food designers! I think food designers must not only be aware that this discipline exists, but also use its findings in their food design process.

At the beginning of the design process, designers start looking around. This is where they try and understand their design context and target users. The goal is to search for existing information, before gathering additional complementary information. Well, I am confident saying that whatever the design project, there is information within food psychology that a food designer would need and that they would find very useful in their design process.

To demonstrate this, I am going to give you three examples from three of my favorite articles published by Professor Wansink, just to give you a taste of how little we know about ourselves when it comes to food, and therefore, how many wrong assumptions food designers can make!!! And this is the point, because assumptions are a designer's worst enemy, and overcoming them is the reason why preliminary research is conducted.

Okay, article number one: Descriptive menu labels' effect on sales. In this study Professor Wansink went into a faculty cafeteria and changed the names of the dishes on the menu. For six weeks two items had regular names and two items had new names, a "descriptive label", as he puts it. The new names went from Grilled Chicken to Tender Grilled Chicken, from Seafood Fillet to Succulent Italian Seafood Filet. They let people choose their food and then they gave them a questionnaire.

What did they learn? First of all, more people chose the item with the fancy name, no surprise there. Then the results showed that the items with the descriptive label were considered as having higher quality and higher value. They improved the attitude towards the entire establishment and influenced people's purchase intention, saying they would eat it again! All of this just because the name of the dish had fancier words or more adjectives! What is also great about this article is that at the end, there is an appendix that gives suggestions on how to improve the names of dishes. So food designers, restaurant managers, and chefs, take note:
1) Use geographic labels, which refer to the place where flavors come from. E.g.: Southwestern Tex-Mex Salad, and Country Peach Tart.
2) Use nostalgia labels alluding to past times to trigger happy memories of family, tradition, and nationalism. E.g.: Nana's Favorite Chicken Soup, and Legendary Chocolate Mousse Pie
3) Use sensory labels that accurately describe the taste, smell, and mouth feel of the menu item. E.g.: Hearty Wholesome Steaks, and Snappy Seasonal Carrots.
4) Use brand labels that involve a cross-promotion with a related brand that has important associations. E.g.: Jack Daniels BBQ Ribs, and Butterfinger Blizzard.

Article number two: Environmental factors that increase the food intake and consumption volume of unknowing consumers. This is a spectacular, huge literature review article in which Professor Wansink shows how the eating environment (atmosphere, eating effort, socialisation, distractions, etc.) and the food environment (variety, size of package and portions, stockpiling of food, shape of food vessel, etc.) influence consumption volume. Basically, what and how much we eat is mostly subconscious and we don't realise it! Just with regards to lighting, for example, we know that harsh and bright illumination decreases how long people stay in a restaurant, whereas soft or warm lighting makes people stay for longer and maybe even have a dessert. But also, the more variety we have available, the more we eat; the bigger the packaging, the more we eat; the more food we have available at home, the more we eat; the bigger the plate, the more we eat.

Food Psychology and studies like this have shown us that we should - consciously - pay more attention to what we buy and what we eat. And the point here is that if food designers are aware of these studies, they can combine this knowledge with their skills for improving people's lives, and make people eat less junk food and more healthy food!

This is a huge article that is impossible to summarise. If you had to read only one article on Food Psychology ever, I'd suggest you to read this one. If you are then interested in more, it leads you to 151 more articles that are cited in the text.

And finally, article number three: Bad popcorn in big buckets. I kept the best for last. Professor Wansink asked himself: What would happen if I gave people food when they were not hungry and food that wasn't any good? So he set an experiment in a movie theatre, and to people who had dinner before going into the movie theatre, he gave big buckets of popcorn... five-day-old, stale popcorn! Now... when people eat good popcorn during a movie, they eat, eat, and eat. When people eat nasty, stale popcorn, they get a bite, make a face of disgust, and put it down. Three minutes later they turn around, and, "Hey! Popcorn!" And eat again. And so on and so forth for the duration of the movie. At the end of the movie, they ate 25% more popcorn! This proves that we don't know how much we eat... even when the food is bad!

This was just a hint of Food Psychology for you, just a little sprinkle of information. As a food designer you must be aware of behavioural and psychological aspects of people around food. Hope this has inspired you to make this prolific discipline one of your sources of information for your research in future food design projects.

Happy Food Design!


Wansink, B. (2004). Environmental factors that increase the food intake and consumption volume of unknowing consumers. Annual Review of Nutrition, 24, 455-479.

Wansink, B., & Kim, J. (2005). Bad popcorn in big buckets: portion size can influence intake as much as taste. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, 37(5), 242-245.

Wansink, B., Painter, J., & Ittersum, K. v. (2001). Descriptive menu labels' effect on sales. Cornell hotel and Restaurant Administration Quarterly, 42(6), 68-72.