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University staff inspect the range in a glass cabinet, opt for salad or a schnitzel with capsicum sauce, gobble up two portions or leave remains lying on the plate – and are observed doing so. Those eating in the canteen of the Wageningen University are aware that they are being pursued the whole time by cameras. The canteen is a concealed research lab. Every movement and every bite taken by the patrons is filmed. Cameras zoom in on the half-consumed soup of a young lady, the chewing movements of two be-suited men and record the hesitant hand movements of the stout woman as she selects a chocolate pudding The advantage compared to questionnaire campaigns is that here nobody can dissimulate. How large was the portion really? How much sugar did the office worker actually pour into his coffee? Other findings are provided by sensors embedded in the canteen chairs to measure the heartbeats of a maximum of 250 test persons. And while the guinea-pigs pay at the till, a built-in weighing machine records their weight.
Designed to run for a period of ten years, this research project is entitled “Restaurant of the Future”. Behind it are economist René Koster and another two dozen scientists. They aim to discover what factors affect eating behavior. In addition to eating and drinking habits, the scientists are interested in whether and to what extent this is affected by smell, color, taste, appearance and packing design. The relationship between behavior and such physical aspects as change in weight and heartbeat, the role of memory in selecting dishes and possible methods of measuring appetite – all these are additional fields covered by this survey. The fact is that much in eating behavior is sub-conscious. “Each day on average we encounter 250 unconscious choices involving food,” says Koster. Seeing and smelling, especially, strongly influence consumers. The research team also aims to discover which role the surroundings and the ambience play in the choice and consumption of food. The nutrition specialists manipulate the surroundings of the test persons to this end, with different shades of light, sweet odor in the air, smaller plates, larger plates, music and different fabrics as chair coverings.
Symrise has recognized the benefit of the research project for the company and has signed a scientific cooperation agreement with the Wageningen University. It is the first company from the fragrance and aroma industry to participate in the three-million-euro experiment. Symrise’s Sensory & Consumer Science department can use the “Restaurant of the Future” for surveys of its own so as have the latest findings incorporated in sensory and consumer research. For Symrise, the focuses of interest are the criteria used for selecting the test persons for food and drink. The goal is to develop consumer-oriented product schemes that are in line with market trends. “Just one quarter of all food products survive the first six months in the trade,” says Koster. The costs of product development and market launches, moreover, are enormous. Yet tastes are becoming ever harder to predict. Among the reasons is the growing individualization in society that makes it harder to distribute consumers between clearly defined groups. Symrise intends to arrive at the most accurate possible predictions about changes in taste and odor preferences.
Monitoring of eating habits and food intake has already produced its first findings. With no companions, we eat less because we concentrate more on the food, allowing ourselves to be distracted less and noticing more quickly when we are full. Blue light really does encourage us to eat fish; the same is true of a sweet odor and desserts. Whereas brash colors and harsh light drive away customers, flowers, music and comfortable seating extend duration of stay. Yet even experienced consumer researchers cannot influence the two most important aspects that have the biggest effect on our eating habits, namely the time of day and the place/company in which we take our food.