A pair of arches, words written across a bottle in a certain fancy script, and a green mermaid/goddess on a paper cup. These are images that, when we see them, can spark a sudden desire to want to eat or drink certain foods or beverages. Each day we encounter environmental food cues like these almost everywhere we look. The effects of food cues may have a subtle but powerful influence on our decisions regarding what to eat and drink. The smart packaging, the clever logos, and the catchy jingles all serve to remind us of the enjoyable experience of eating certain foods in the hopes that we will buy and eat more of it. And they are supposed to; why else would the food industry spend millions on marketing campaigns?
Cues can be visual, mental, auditory or even olfactory (smelled). So, the next time you get the hankering for a can of soda while watching a movie, it may be the result of a cleverly placed ad that is serving as a cue. Or, if you suddenly get the urge for a slice of fresh-baked apple pie the next time you visit Grandma’s house, it may be the familiar surroundings that are acting as a mental cue of the delicious pies she has made in the past. Or, most parents have had the experience of hearing the ringing bell of the ice-cream truck coming down the road and then being faced with a child who is suddenly dying for a cone.
Food cues work so well because they are based on a very effective psychological tactic: classical conditioning. Imagine you get a whiff of your favorite food and then find yourself feeling hungry, the food’s smell is serving as the unconditioned stimulus and your feeling of hunger is the unconditioned response. This stimulus-response pattern is considered “unconditioned” because it doesn’t have to be learned; it’s natural. During classical conditioning, however, an unconditioned stimulus, such as a food’s smell, is associated with a neutral stimulus, like a logo or song. After being paired together, the neutral stimulus can begin to act like the unconditioned stimulus, eliciting the unconditioned response, in this case hunger. When this happens, this response becomes what is called the conditioned response because it has been learned.
We have become conditioned such that when we see the neutral stimulus of a logo (which is merely an image with which we associate meaning), we feel the urge to consume some food or drink. This is why when you see those famous golden arches, you can almost taste the french fries, and you may suddenly want to stop in and get some even if you are not hungry. This is also why many food companies don’t change their logos too often: the effectiveness of this logo is based on the repeated pairings of the unconditioned stimulus and the logo (neutral stimulus). If they were to change the neutral stimulus every few months, we may not be as likely to form an association between the two.
There is evidence that children recognize fast food logos at a higher frequency than other food logos, and scientists suggest that this increased recognition could lead children to influence their parents’ buying behaviors. Numerous studies have also shown the effect that certain cues can have on our brains. Scientists using animal models, for example, have found that cues associated with drug use can cause similar neurochemical responses as actual drug use, demonstrating just how powerful these cues can be.
Interestingly, people who are obese show stronger neural activation in response to food cues and need to exert more effort to control their appetite when encountering them. Those who are overweight also tend to view pictures of food more readily than lean people. This is especially so when they report having a food craving. Thus, when experiencing a food craving, an individual who is overweight may have a heightened awareness of food cues around them. Being overweight has also been associated with greater snack food intake after viewing food cues. Cues do their job: they make us want to eat food. And unfortunately, if you are overweight or obese, they may be even more effective.
So, be sure to mind your cues.
Arredondo E, Castaneda D, Elder JP, Slymen D, Dozier D (2009). Brand Name Logo Recognition of Fast Food and Healthy Food among Children. J Community Health 34: 73-78.
Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity (2010). Evaluating Fast Food Nutrition and Marketing to Youth. Retrieved from http://www.rwjf.org/files/research/20101108fffactsreport.pdf
Scharmüller W, Übel S, Ebner F, Schienle A (2012). Appetite regulation during food cue exposure: a comparison of normal-weight and obese women. Neurosci Lett 518(2): 106-10.
Werthmann J, Roefs A, Nederkoorn C, Mogg K, Bradley BP, Jansen A (2011). Can(not) take my eyes off it: attention bias for food in overweight participants. Health Psychol 30(5): 561-9.
Dr. Nicole Avena is a research neuroscientist/psychologist and expert in the fields of nutrition, diet and addiction. She has published over 50 scholarly journal articles, as well as several book chapters on topics related to food, addiction, obesity and eating disorders. She recently edited the book, Animal Models of Eating Disorders (Springer/Humana Press, 2013), and she has a book on food and addiction forthcoming in 2014. Her research achievements have been honored by awards from several groups including the New York Academy of Sciences, the American Psychological Association, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and her research has been funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Eating Disorders Association.