Mood & food: Studying the connection between feeling and consumption

By Keera Perumbala

Can what we eat affect how we feel? And can our mood in a given moment affect how, and what, we eat or drink? The answer to both is yes. Food and mood have always been close companions, and they travel together in many different ways:

First, consider how we talk about flavor. Someone may be “vanilla” if they are seen as bland, or “cheesy” if their humor is stale.

Multiple studies have shown links between sweet flavor consumption and pro-social behaviors like generosity with time, agreeableness and rating others as more attractive. Perhaps it’s because we know this about ourselves that study participants rate images of people more highly when they are told the person in the image likes sweets!

The reverse is also true – our mood can affect our flavor perception. Mild stress can increase the intensity of bitterness and decrease sweetness. Antidepressant medications can influence an individual’s threshold for sweet, bitter and sour.

So how do we use this? How do you innovate with this information? First we need to acknowledge the very real effect that food choices can have on our emotional state. Let’s dive into the chemistry:

  • Neurotransmitters in the brain, such as serotonin or dopamine have very real impact on how we think and feel.
  • Low blood-sugar levels affect our energy level and can cause food cravings or irritability.
  • Fatty, sugar-laden comfort foods make us feel good in the short term but can lead to negative state of mental health in the longer term.
  • Fun foods can tap into nostalgia or play and can positively engage our emotional state.
  • Foods with caffeine or alcohol reduce or enhance anxiety.

The list goes on, which shows just how complex and intertwined the relationship between mood and food can be.

The upshot is that consumers feel strongly about emotional well-being and expression as a part of their overall mental health. Selfcare, whether it’s physical, mental or emotional, is huge, especially with the Millennial generation. Research shows that North Americans who lead holistically healthy lifestyles to “be happier” (58%) and “feel less stressed” (42%). To support those goals, consumers are looking to food to become a part of their self-care routine. A product or brand’s emotional experience or promise is what they need to deliver.

There is still plenty of research to be done, and what’s apparent is that moods can be altered in many different ways by what we eat or drink — and vice versa. That’s why learning the effect different flavors, and flavor combinations, have on consumers remains an integral part of our food and beverage flavor development.

*Sources: Mintel, Platte, Herbert, Pauli, Breslin, & Behrens, 2013; Heath, Melichar, Nutt & Donaldson, 2006; Dess & Edelheit, 1998