COLUMBUS, Ohio -- What we eat is determined by more than just hunger pangs.
It's often an unconscious response to what's around us, according to a sensory researcher with Ohio State University's College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.
"Our environment can affect how much we eat, and even how much we like a food," said Chris Simons, who joined the Department of Food Science and Technology earlier this year. "Environmental cues -- visual, auditory, aroma -- can generate cravings that influence food intake."
Simons, whose background is in both sensory science and neuroscience, is now putting the finishing touches on new labs in the Parker Food Science and Technology Building that will help him study human response to such cues, and will hire his first graduate student as a research assistant in August.
Simons also has an appointment with the college's research arm, the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center.
One of Simons' new testing grounds is an immersive technologies laboratory.
The first thing a visitor notices is an entire wall covered with high-definition video screens that can set a visual scene for sensory testing -- the interior of a five-star restaurant, for example, or a fast-food burger joint, a home kitchen or an outdoor setting for a picnic.
Less obvious components are surround-sound speakers and a stainless-steel spout jutting from the wall that can pump aromas into the room.
"We could set up tables and chairs in the room that are consistent with, say, a Wendy's restaurant, and re-create the environment that a customer would experience," Simons said. "Then we can alter some things, perhaps pumping in some strong flavor aromas, to see how consumers react to different stimuli."
The back of the room has a one-way mirror that allows researchers to make observations of study participants.
Another lab will allow researchers to gather physiological data, including heart rate, respiration and skin perspiration, to help measure unconscious reactions to various food-related stimuli including flavors, packaging or visual images of company logos.
"It will allow us to gather data measuring responses to different stimuli using methodology that's more objective," Simons said.
The information will help researchers determine how consumers react to stimuli on two dimensions: arousal and liking.
"When you have physiological responses that are high on each scale, that's good, it shows excitement," he said. "If they score low on both scales, the reaction suggests boredom."
Scoring high on the liking scale but low on the arousal scale can indicate relaxation, he said, an important component for product developers who want to make products that help consumers unwind.
"Right now, companies can't accurately measure an emotional connection to their products, and consumers can't articulate it because it's unconscious," Simons said.
"We are creatures of vision, and so we can be very descriptive of things we see. But we don't have the vocabulary to describe our reactions to things we taste and smell, so we're looking for other ways to measure those reactions."
The new labs, plus two new consumer sensory testing booths nearby, will vastly enhance the traditional Sensory Testing Services currently offered by the department, he said.
Simons sees extensive opportunities for research using the new facilities.
"The majority of new food products fail once they get on the market, and that's after extensive consumer tests are done," he said. "With better ways to measure consumer responses to new products, we can help companies improve their success rate.
"That could be especially important for healthier versions of processed foods. Let's face it, processed foods are a reality. Let's make them healthy, and keep them as rewarding to consumers as what's currently available."
In addition, new ways to study subconscious reactions to environmental cues and how they affect hunger and intake can provide fresh insights into obesity research, he said. Reaction to such cues could also be used in studies of drug and alcohol abuse and smoking cessation programs.
Simons, who has joined the university's Food Innovation Center and Center for Advanced Functional Foods Research and Entrepreneurship, came to Ohio State after nine years at Givaudan Flavors Corp. in Cincinnati, where he led the sensory research function. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 614-688-1489.