This work began with the observation that people differ tremendously in their food preferences and eating habits, coupled with the observation that some people perceive food flavors more intensely than do others. These observations led us to wonder whether there was a link between taste and smell sensitivity and food choices and attitudes towards food and eating.
This project is needed because of the importance of food choice to our health and well-being. Nearly all the major causes of poor health and death in the United States are associated with poor eating habits, especially the failure to consume adequate amounts of healthy foods, coupled with excessive consumption of unhealthy foods.
The single most important reason why people reject foods that are healthy is that the foods do not taste good to them. With a better understanding of what different people actually experience when they eat a food, we may be able to develop approaches to improving food choices and eating habits. Further, an understanding of the link between taste sensitivity and personality may enable us to develop individualized ways of encouraging people to eat more healthily. Eventually, changes in eating habits will improve public health while providing enlarging markets for healthy foods.
During the past 10 years of this line of research, my students and I have been refining our methods for evaluating taste and smell sensitivity, and exploring how we may apply these methods to large numbers of people, testing as many as a hundred people in a day. We have also been refining our methods for asking about food choice, eating behaviors, and attitudes and personality. We have found that as anticipated there are big differences in food choice, and particularly in the consumption of calorically dense foods, as well as in personality, according to taste and smell sensitivity.
At this time, the research we have been carrying out is in its early stages, so as yet no specific groups or individuals have derived benefit in material ways. However, I have received inquiries from many people about the research, and they have stated that our preliminary findings have been important in helping them understand their own behaviors and the behaviors of their family and friends.