Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


potato-chips

Distracted Dining Increases Desire for Sugary, Salty Foods

• June 04, 2013 • 4:00 AM

(PHOTO: JIANG HONGYAN/SHUTTERSTOCK)

New research finds that foods that would otherwise seem sufficiently sugary or salty come across as bland if we’re eating while mentally distracted.

Our eating habits have changed radically in recent decades, in at least two distinct ways. We increasingly multitask as we consume our meals, munching as we work at our desk or watch television. And, to the dismay of nutritionists, our food has higher concentrations of sugar and salt.

New research from the Netherlands suggests the two phenomena may be directly related.

A study just published in the journal Psychological Science finds people eating or drinking while mentally distracted require greater concentrations of sweetness, sourness, or saltiness to feel satisfied. A slightly sweet dish may be delicious when you’re concentrating on each bite, but it tastes bland if you’re eating while your attention is divided.

“When people’s attention is burdened by a demanding activity, they will need to consume more of a certain food to obtain an optimal taste experience.”

“Our results suggest that limited attentional resources reduce sensory experience, which may be an important cause of overeating,” write psychologists Reine C. van der Wal and Lotte F. van Dillen. “When people’s attention is burdened by a demanding activity, they will need to consume more of a certain food to obtain an optimal taste experience.”

The researchers describe four experiments providing evidence backing up their thesis. One featured 18 students who were asked to taste and rate three drinks of varying sweetness: one consisting of 30 percent grenadine syrup, another of 10 percent, and a third that was pure water. They sampled each on two occasions: While asked to remember a series of seven letters, and while asked to remember a single letter.

The key result: Participants “perceived the strong grenadine solution as significantly less sweet” when their brains were occupied remembering that random string of letters. Their taste buds were unchanged, of course, but the cognitive load impacted the way those sensations were processed by the brain.

A similar experiment featured 17 students who tasted crackers with either salty or salt-free butter. Echoing the results of the sweetness study (and another measuring sourness), participants perceived the salted buttered snacks as less salty if they tasted them while keeping the series of letters in mind.

In a final experiment, 42 students were asked to create a glass of lemonade by adding grenadine syrup until they reached their preferred level of sweetness. They did so while memorizing a seven-digit number, and again while keeping in mind a single-digit number.

Participants added more grenadine syrup while in the mentally distracted state. However, the researchers add, “they did not perceive their drink as sweeter or more pleasant.” The solution that satisfied them when their minds were focused on the beverage was seen as insufficiently sweet during a mentally taxing challenge.

“These results are highly relevant in today’s society, in which multitasking is common,” the researchers conclude. Indeed, they suggest the habit of splitting our concentration may be leading us into unhealthy eating habits.

So people who want to eat better, but fear they will find low-salt or low-sugar foods unbearably bland, might want to try this simple experiment. Turn off the TV, step away from the computer, and set aside some time to simply enjoy your meal.

You might be surprised by how good healthy food can taste.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

Tags: , ,

If you would like to comment on this post, or anything else on Pacific Standard, visit our Facebook or Google+ page, or send us a message on Twitter. You can also follow our regular updates and other stories on both LinkedIn and Tumblr.

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Follow us


Subscribe Now

Quick Studies

What Steve Jobs’ Death Teaches Us About Public Health

Studies have shown that when public figures die from disease, the public takes notice. New research suggests this could be the key to reaching those who are most at risk.

Speed-Reading Apps Will Not Revolutionize Anything, Except Your Understanding

The one-word-at-a-time presentation eliminates the eye movements that help you comprehend what you're reading.

To Make Friends, Autistic Kids Need Advice—and Space

Kids with autism need help when it comes to making friends—but they also need their independence.

Gaming the Wedding Gift Registry System

Registering for your wedding? Keep your must-have items away from the average price of your registry—they’re unlikely to be purchased.

Smokey Can’t Save Us: Wildfires Are Out of Control

New research shows how rapidly fire dangers are rising in the American West. The results could help governments plan ahead for the flames.

The Big One

One state—Pennsylvania—logs 52 percent of all sales, shipments, and receipts for the chocolate manufacturing industry. March/April 2014