How the brain shapes the taste of food

Unilever R&D partnered the University of Manchester in a project to understand how a person’s brain shapes the taste of their food, and how consumers make and maintain healthy food choices.

Looking at behaviour

The team studied the way that food is perceived through all our senses, how consumers acquire ‘rewards’ from food through signals from the brain and what all this means for food product design. The aim is to generate great products for consumers as we uncover the underlying processes, laws and rules that govern their behaviour.

Using neural science

The task of neuroscience is to explain behaviour in terms of the activities of the brain: how the brain marshals its millions of individual nerve cells to produce behaviour, and how these cells are influenced by the environment.

But the process of observing patterns of neural behaviour as a person swallows a drink at the same time as their brain is being scanned is technically challenging. This makes these studies of liking, expectation and taste – and the interactions between them – genuinely unique.

Subtle differences

‘What is undoubtedly new about our research’ explains Dr Anna Thomas, Unilever R&D, ‘is that we explore the neural response to really subtle contrasts in stimuli such as sweetness. Until now, research has focused on comparing very unpleasant to very pleasant stimuli, but using more sophisticated research techniques, comparisons have been made that map very realistically the ways in which consumers experience products. Thus, the results have an unprecedented realism, an attribute particularly important to innovative product design.

Sensory science and the real world

This research involves the area of science called Multisensory Integration. This examines the subtle interplay of the senses in our perception and appreciation of food. Understanding the perceptual processes taking place in multisensory integration with decision making is critical for innovative product design.

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