Hungry customers are easily enticed to eat at fast-food restaurants by the glittering menu signs showing delicious food pictures and the mouthwatering aroma of crispy French fries and juicy burgers. A new study at the University of Michigan has established that food-related cues from fast-food restaurants stimulate brain activities and reactions, and can goad some patrons to gorge as a result of their induced hunger and food cravings. According to Michelle Joyner, a psychology graduate student at the University and the study’s lead researcher, these food cues could really only make people crave more food, without any effect on their liking the food taste or being satisfied.
A total of 112 college participants took part in this study and their demographics – age, gender, race, weight – were fully disclosed. Random selections were made to assign them to either a fast-food laboratory resembling a real restaurant with tables, chairs, booths, and low background music (experimental group), or a neutral lab (control group). Participants who had eaten lunch an hour ahead of the study’s trial could receive tokens to either buy foods normally available at fast-food joints such as French fries, cheeseburgers, soft drinks, and milkshakes. The vouchers could alternatively be used to buy some time for any other activity like playing video games. Both the food and game activities were shown on TV screens placed in the trial areas.
The research questions were focused on hunger, liking, and wanting. While liking portrays pleasure, wanting is a powerful motivation. Food-related cues in the fast-food lab made participants feel more hungry than in the neutral environments. However, these food cues did not make any major difference in their liking the food’s taste in either of the two locations.
The study also revealed that participants consumed 220 less total calories in non-cue environments when compared to those who ate in the fast-food locations with food-related cues. Joyner stated that food cues had no impact on participants liking or wanting for games, thus showing the effect was really food-specific. Joyner and her fellow researchers made mention of how important it is for people to have the knowledge about how food-related cues can actually induce them into thinking that they are hungry and subsequently increasing their craving for food.
Joyner added that although it can be hard to avoid food cues in our society, people can try some tricks to minimize exposure to these cues by using technology to skip through food advertisements on TV shows and refraining from going into restaurants. From the findings of the study, we can safely conclude that the presence of food-related cues in a fast-food restaurant environment can induce hunger for food. These food cues can also trick patrons to overeat at fast-food joints. The cues have little or no impact on customers’ liking for food tastes, and patrons can develop tricks to reduce exposure to food cues and avoid overeating.