Why do people choose the foods they do? This is a very complex question, and there are many factors influencing what you eat, as you can see from this list:
- Other aspects of food (such as cost, convenience, nutrition)
- Culture and religion
- Social and emotional influences
- Food industry and the media
- Environmental concerns
Now we will look at many of these factors in depth.
The most important consideration when choosing something to eat is the flavor of the food. Flavor is an attribute of a food that includes its appearance, smell, taste, feel in the mouth, texture, temperature, and even the sounds made when it is chewed. Flavor is a combination of all five senses: taste, smell, touch, sight, and sound. From birth, we have the ability to smell and taste. Most of what we call taste is really smell, a fact we realize when a cold hits our nasal passages. Even though the taste buds are working fine, the smell cells are not, and this dulls much of food's flavor.
Flavor— An attribute of a food that includes its appearance, smell, taste, feel in the mouth, texture, temperature, and even the sounds made when it is chewed.
Taste comes from 10,000 taste buds—clusters of cells resembling the sections of an orange. Taste buds, found on the tongue, cheeks, throat, and roof of the mouth, house 60 to 100 receptor cells each. The body regenerates taste buds about every three days. They are most numerous in children under six, which may explain why youngsters are such picky eaters. These cells bind food molecules dissolved in saliva, and alert the brain to interpret them.
Taste— Sensations perceived by the taste buds on the tongue.
Taste buds— Clusters of cells found on the tongue, cheeks, throat, and roof of the mouth. Each taste bud houses 60 to 100 receptor cells. The body regenerates taste buds about every three days. These cells bind food molecules dissolved in saliva and alert the brain to interpret them.
Although the tongue is often depicted as having regions that specialize in particular taste sensations—for example, the tip is said to detect sweetness—researchers know that taste buds for each sensation (sweet, salty, sour, and bitter) are actually scattered around the tongue. In fact, a single taste bud can have receptors for all four types of taste.
If you could taste only sweet, salty, sour, and bitter, how could you taste the flavor of cinnamon, chicken, or any other food? This is where smell comes in. Your ability to identify the flavors of specific foods requires smell.
The ability to detect the strong scent of a fish market, the antiseptic odor of a hospital, the aroma of a ripe melon, and thousands of other smells is possible thanks to a yellowish patch of tissue the size of a quarter high up in your nose. This patch is actually a layer of 12 million specialized cells, each sporting 10 to 20 hairlike growths called cilia that bind with the smell and send a message to the brain. Our sense of smell may not be as refined as that of dogs, who have billions of olfactory cells, but we can distinguish among about 10,000 scents.
You can smell foods in two ways. If you smell coffee brewing while you are getting dressed, you smell it directly through your nose. But if you are drinking coffee, the smell of the coffee goes to the back of your mouth and then up into your nose. To some extent, what you smell (or taste) is genetically determined.
All foods have texture, a natural texture granted by Mother Nature. It may be coarse or fine, rough or smooth, tender or tough. Whichever the texture, it influences whether you like the food. The natural texture of a food may not be the most desirable texture for a finished dish, so a cook may create another texture. For example, a fresh apple may be too crunchy to serve at dinner, so it is baked or sautéed for a softer texture. Or a cream soup may be too thin, so a thickening agent is used to increase the viscosity of the soup, or, simply stated, make it harder to pour.
Food appearance or presentation strongly influences which foods you choose to eat. Eye appeal is the purpose of food presentation, whether the food is hot or cold. It is especially important for cold foods because they lack the come-on of an appetizing aroma. Just the sight of something delicious to eat can start your digestive juices flowing.
Other Aspects of Food
Food cost is a major consideration. For example, breakfast cereals were inexpensive for many years. Then prices jumped, and it seemed that most boxes of cereal cost over $3.00. Some consumers switched from cereal to bacon and eggs because the bacon and eggs became less expensive. Cost is a factor in many of the purchasing decisions at the supermarket, whether one is buying dry beans at $0.39 per pound or fresh salmon at $8.99 per pound.
Convenience is more of a concern now than at any time in the past. Just think about the variety of foods you can purchase today that are already cooked or can simply be microwaved. Even if you desire ready-to-eat fruits and vegetables, supermarkets offer cut-up fruits, vegetables, and salads that need no further preparation. Of course, convenience foods are more expensive than their raw counterparts, and not every budget can afford them.
Everyone's food choices are affected by availability and familiarity. Whether it is a wide choice of foods at an upscale supermarket or a choice of only two restaurants within walking distance of where you work, you can eat only what is available. The availability of foods is very much influenced by how food is produced and distributed. For example, the increasing number of soft drink vending machines, particularly in schools and workplaces, has contributed to increasing soft drink consumption year-round. Fresh fruits and vegetables are perfect examples of foods that are most available (and at their lowest prices) when in season. Of course, you are more likely to eat fruits and vegetables, or any food for that matter, with which you are familiar and have eaten before.
The nutritional content of a food can be an important factor in deciding what to eat. You have probably watched people reading nutritional labels on a food package, or perhaps you have read nutritional labels yourself. Current estimates show that about 66 percent of Americans use nutrition information labels. Older people tend to read labels more often than younger people.
Demographic factors that influence food choices include age, gender, educational level, income, and cultural background (discussed next). Women and older adults tend to consider nutrition more often than men or young adults when choosing what to eat. Older adults are probably more nutrition-minded because they have more health problems and are more likely to have to change their diet for health reasons. People with higher incomes and educational levels tend to think about nutrition more often when choosing what to eat.
Culture and Religion
Culture can be defined as the behaviors and beliefs of a certain social, ethnic, or age group. Culture strongly influences the eating habits of its members. Each culture has norms about which foods are edible, which foods have high or low status, how often foods are consumed, what foods are eaten together, when foods are eaten, and what foods are served at special events and celebrations (such as weddings). For example, some French people eat horsemeat, but Americans do not consider horsemeat acceptable to eat. Likewise, many common American practices seem strange or illogical to persons from other cultures. For example, what could be more unusual than boiling water to make tea and adding ice to make it cold again, sugar to sweeten it, and then lemon to make it tart? When immigrants come to live in the United States, their eating habits do gradually change, but they are among the last habits to adapt to the new culture.
Culture— The behaviors and beliefs of a certain social, ethnic, or age group. Food Practices of World Religions
Have you ever dieted to lose weight? Most Americans are either trying to lose weight or keep from gaining it. You probably know that obesity and overweight can increase your risk of cancer, coronary heart disease, diabetes, and other health problems. What you eat influences your health. Even if you are healthy, you may choose foods based on a desire to prevent health problems and/or improve your appearance.
A knowledge of nutrition and a positive attitude toward nutrition may translate into nutritious eating practices. Just knowing that eating lots of fruits and vegetables may prevent heart disease does not mean that someone will automatically start eating more of these foods. For some people, knowledge is enough to stimulate new eating behaviors, but for most people, knowledge is not enough and change is difficult. There are many circumstances and beliefs that prevent change, such as a lack of time or money to eat right. But some people manage to change their eating habits, especially if they feel that the advantages (such as losing weight or preventing cancer) outweigh the disadvantages.
Social and Emotional Influences
People have historically eaten meals together, making meals important social occasions. Our food choices are influenced by the social situations we find ourselves in, whether in the comfort of our home or eating out in a restaurant. For example, social influences are involved when several members of a group of college friends are vegetarian. Peer pressure no doubt in fluences many food choices for children and young adults. Even as adults, we tend to eat the same foods that our friends and neighbors eat. This is due to cultural influences as well.
Food is often used to convey social status. For example, in a trendy, upscale New York City restaurant, you will find prime cuts of beef and high-priced wine.
Emotions are closely tied to some of our food selections. You may have been given something sweet to eat, such as cake or candy, whenever you were unhappy or upset. As an adult, you may gravitate to those kinds of foods, called comfort foods, when under stress.
Food Industry and the Media
The food industry very much influences what you choose to eat. After all, the food companies decide what foods to produce and where to sell them. They also use advertising, product labeling and displays, information provided by their consumer services departments, and websites to sell their products.
On a daily basis, the media (television, newspapers, magazines, radio, etc.) portray food in many ways: paid advertisements, articles on food in magazines and newspapers, or foods eaten on television shows. Much research has been done on the impact of television food commercials on children. Quite often the commercials succeed in getting children to eat foods such as cookies, candies, and fast foods. Television commercials are likely contributing to higher calorie and fat intakes.
The media also report frequently on new studies related to food, nutrition, and health topics. It is hard to avoid hearing sound bites such as "more fruits and vegetables lower blood pressure." Media reports may influence which foods people eat.
Some people have environmental concerns, such as the use of chemical pesticides, so they often, or always, choose organically grown foods (which are grown without such chemicals—see Food Facts on page 31 for more information). Many vegetarians won't eat meat or chicken for ecological reasons, because livestock and poultry require so much land, energy, water, and plant food, which they consider wasteful.