Your body remembers past sensory experiences and their association with specific foods. Habitual response on smell, taste, view and structure of food is therefore a major determinant of nutritional habits and should be encountered in product formulation and healthy habit formation. Modern food processing, preparation and presentation technologies are so advanced that our sensory habits and preferences can be partially adjusted with reformulation of foods. This has can deliver a lot of benefit for formation of healthy nutrition habits, but more often cause harm to our dietary pattern.
Sensory habit formation often starts with a pleasant smelling sensation that sends a stimulus to your brain that evokes appetite. Unpleasant smells in contrary evoke the aversive stimulus that alarms you for possible dangerous food and represses your appetite. The brain has high capacity of remembering even the most neutral smells. Smells are even considered to be one of the most strong memory benchmark and a great predictor of sensory preference. When you actually see the food the combination of smell and look of the dish make up a second decision about eating or not eating the food. Food that looks bad, but smells good and the other way around, evokes conflicted habitual responses, however also leave more impression for future habit formation. At the point that food is placed into the mouth, the third and the fourth sensory activity takes place. You can feel the structure of products and sense the taste. The perception of the structure and its association to what previously was smelled and seen form another benchmark for decision of liking or disliking the dish. The taste sensation also forms habitual response concerning the intensity of flavor. It’s important to understand that human sensory system has a sensitivity level. This sensitivity level can be increased or decreased based on the ‘usual’ sensation, or stated differently: dependently on the intensively of the tastes that one normally is use to eat.
Food producers and distributors often take advantage of this natural habitual response to the sensory value of the products. They serve food beautifully and colorful, use cooking techniques and additives to make the food smell and taste good and sometimes even change the original consistence of the products. These days making food look attractive is not much of the concern with advanced cooking technologies and variety on serving options. By aromatizing the products with spices and sometimes artificial flavors, food can smell exactly how it needs to smell to make people hungry. By addition of salt, sugar, sweeteners and other natural and artificial taste-makers, the food can surely be made tasteful no matter how it looks and smells. Modern cooking techniques go even so far, that food can ‘look like an apple and taste like an orange.’
While in some case it can be used in advantage, for instance for the need of meeting the dietary requirements of the people with bad appetite, allergies and medical conditions that lead to decreased sensory response or appetite, in most cases advantage of sensory habits is taken for the commercial benefit. Besides the fact that unhealthy products rich in flavors, colors and aromas mislead us and force us towards consumption of less healthy foods, it also contributes to the formation of bad sensory habits. With rise in a trend for foods that are colorful, nice-smelling and highly intensive flavors, my professional concern is about bad habit formation due to decreased sensitivity of our sensory system. Many people notice that natural products often taste and smell less distinguishing, especially if one is use to eat processed, salty or sweetened foods. The visual look of the natural products and bio-stores seem also to be much less colorful and appealing than the usual packages and labels in the supermarkets.
While there is need for adaptation of food policies and enforcement of regulation for product formulation, labeling, pricing and promotion, something can be done at household level as well. Healthy nutrition habits start with an understanding that the sensory system can be regulated in a healthy body and that it should be done step by step. By slowly reducing the amount of added sugars, salt, sauces and other taste-makers at the table and during food preparation, the sensory system will develop more sensitivity to flavors and smells. The use of healthy products like fruits, vegetables and greens in food preparation and for plate decoration, increase the attractiveness of a dish in a healthy way and contribute also to increase in consumption of those healthy products. Exclusion or minimizing consumption of processed foods (sweets and savory snacks, ready-to-eat meals, fast food, sweet drinks) that are rich in (artificial) colors and flavors also benefits significantly to the improvement in sensory perception.
What is seen in practice is that even people that are use to eating sensational rich foods for most of their lives can adapt their taste sensitivity to the natural flavors with time by slowly reducing the consumption of flavor-rich foods. Practice shows that after weeks of consuming dishes with less sensory value, most people report to find their old sensory habits as ‘to intensive’ and sometimes even report to find tastes that they normally consumed as not pleasant due to rich sensation. An additional benefit of improving the taste sensitivity is that the new habit to eat natural products also contributes to formation of an overall health dietary pattern. Considering the contribution of sensory habits on the way to reaching healthy nutritional habits is therefore an important aspect of healthy nutrition pattern formation.
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Veronika Polozkova is an international health specialist, in nutrition and dietetics. Polozkova is a master specialist in international public health and bachelors in nutrition and dietetics. She has several years of experience in medical centers as a clinical dietitian. She has written for over 20 publications in three languages, including the World Health Organization (WHO).