Professor studies how emotions affect our food choices

It’s well documented that eating healthy foods is the best thing you can do for your nutritional well-being.

But ask anyone who has ever been lured by the call of a dozen sugar-laden donuts in the break room while a healthy container of yogurt looks helplessly on as to why sugar-coated O-rings of fat win out during snack time, and they may not even know the answer themselves.

“I needed a sugar fix.” “They were there.” “They taste so good.” All are possible responses, but they don’t really explain why we are drawn to one food or another.

These food conundrums are the crux of Professor Susan Duncan’s research regarding emotions, physiological responses, and food.

   

Professor of Food Science and Technology Susan Duncan and her students prepare a tray for a participant that will evaluate the sample on the other side of the window. Professor of Food Science and Technology Susan Duncan and her students prepare a tray for a participant that will evaluate the sample on the other side of the window.

For better or for worse, "people don’t realize the subconscious food consumption decisions happening before they get to the point of eating,” said Duncan, a professor of food science and technology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “Our research strives to understand how people emotionally interact with foods and the relationship to obesity and the science associated with decision-making and choice.”

She categorizes language and facial motions for clues to emotional responses to food and conducts taste tests in which consumers rate appearance and flavor profile of food products. In the new Human and Agricultural Biosciences Building I, Duncan has a state-of-the-art laboratory for measuring emotions through software that translates facial expressions.

She said the new sensory research lab enhances her ability to collaborate with industry clientele, and the facility has allowed more interaction with faculty from other departments.

   

Video equipment in the new Human and Agricultural Biosciences Building 1 gives Susan Duncan the capability to record facial expressions. Video equipment in the new Human and Agricultural Biosciences Building 1 gives Susan Duncan the capability to record facial expressions in response to food taste and appearance.

In addition to measuring response to food through facial expressions using video equipment, Duncan is conducting a research project that measures physiological responses to food deep inside the brain to uncover what else lies in the decision-making process. Working with colleagues across campus, she measures physical reactions to food through heart rate, brainwaves, and skin response.

She’s doing the work in collaboration with Martha Ann Bell, professor of psychology; Dan Gallagher, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering; Ben Knapp, director of the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology; and Steve Sheets, professor of accounting. Duncan also works closely with Rick Rudd, department head of agricultural, leadership, and community education.

Knapp has studied the emotional response to music by measuring physiological responses to auditory inputs. For Duncan’s research, he measures physiological responses when subjects are exposed to certain foods.

“Measuring emotional response to music was surprising in that it was much more immediate than we thought when we looked at what was happening physiologically,” he said. “We expect it will be the same with food.”

The food science and technology sensory laboratory has state-of-the-art video cameras that read facial expressions and observe behavior and choice in response to a food product. Touch-screen monitors capture consumer participant responses.

A specialized face-reading software program interprets muscular motions to translate study participants' facial expressions into emotions, which are then compared with how well the food is liked by the taster. That will help Duncan better segment consumer responses to food.

The space also includes room for observing individual or group dining situations, interaction with food packaging, and focus group discussions. This level of insight into consumer response will help companies improve products and choose what products to bring to market.

“We’re striving to measure subconscious physiological responses occurring in relation to food and how these responses inform and affect the decision-making process," Duncan said. "We're relating this to how well consumers like the product and the associated behavior."

Duncan said the lab is likely the only one of its kind at an academic institution in the U.S.

“Food is such a positive experience in so many ways,” she said. “Our research can help consumers make decisions that are healthy as well as emotionally fulfilling.”

  • Written by Amy Loeffler.
  • For more information on this topic, contact Zeke Barlow or 540-231-5417.

Video: Explore the lab

    Human and Agricultural Biosciences Building

The research facilities used by Susan Duncan in the new Human and Agricultural Biosciences Building I are impressive.

Duncan speaks at TEDxVirginiaTech

    Susan Duncan

Are we even aware of the unconscious processes occurring when we make food choices? Watch Professor of Food Science and Technology Susan Duncan talk about the psychology of comfort food and how subconsciously emotions play into our enjoyment of eating during this TEDxVirginia Tech Beyond Boundaries talk.

Related links

  • Hear Susan Duncan talk to Pulse of the Planet about the associations we make with certain foods to categorize them as “comforting.”
  • Virginia Tech Magazine explores Feeling Food as part of its How Tech Ticks series.

First building opens in new Human and Agricultural Biosciences Precinct

    Spotlight on achievement

In the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ new Human and Agricultural Biosciences Building 1, researchers and students from multiple disciplines collaborate on issues ranging from fermentation and food safety to bioprocessing and biofuels.

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