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7. Factors Influencing Food Choices in Humans


What are the Factors Influencing Food Choices in Humans?

Many factors influence food choices, as food choice is not a simple process. Foods are not simply chosen because they are liked. There are other reasons for consuming a particular food in addition to the fact that the taste, smell, and/or appearance of the food is pleasurable. For example, the post-ingestive consequences of consuming a particular food can influence whether someone chooses that food (e.g. what the media has said about the effect of a food, such as the consumption of a particular food will lower cholesterol levels). Food choice is also affected by the individual's difficulty in obtaining that food, the alternative reinforcers available to the subject, and the degree to which the subject has been deprived of that food.

Factors affecting dietary patterns and practices

The dietary patterns and practices of individuals are affected by many variables that may be categorised as physiological factors, food accessibility, food characteristics, environmental influences, and psychological influences. It is the combination of these factors that ultimately determines what, how, and why foods are consumed.

Physiological factors that affect food consumption include age, sex, body size, metabolic rate, health status, level of physical activity, pregnancy, lactation, hormonal secretions, use of drugs, and physiological comparisons. However, the inherent regulation of the intake of essential dietary components, apart from water and the need for fuel/energy, has not been established. There is evidence of an inherent desire for the taste of sweet foods, but desires for other flavours are probably learned. Food selection and consumption may also be affected by general health status. Those who are ill tend to eat less, and often prefer more simple, bland foods. The use of drugs may alter food consumption, as many drugs stimulate or depress appetite. Cigarette smoking is accompanied by decreased consumption of sweet-tasting, high calorie foods, although consumption of other foods does not change.

Food accessibility refers to the availability and affordability of foods. Food technology continues to improve the year-round availability of foods and to create and make available new products. Food accessibility is often dictated or limited by life-style and by living and working situations. Those who live with families or other groups will have primary access to those foods that are purchased and/or prepared by the person delegated this responsibility. Those who are the primary food purchasers and preparers have more control over what foods are purchased and how they are prepared, but may be greatly influenced by preferences of household members. Some people have a life-style that dictates the consumption of institutional or restaurant foods.

Food characteristics include the physical appearance of colour, shape, temperature, aroma and flavour. Exposure (familiarity) to these characteristics of food plays a role in food preferences. Studies in infants, young children and adults indicate that food preference is a direct function of exposure frequency. The resemblance of food preferences of college students to those of their parents was found to be related to imitation and frequency of exposure. Some foods are consumed primarily for their pharmacological effect (alcohol in alcoholic beverages and caffeine/theobromide in coffee, tea, chocolate, and some soft drinks).

Environmental influences include exposure to food-related customs and traditions, parental and peer influence, media advertisement, merchandising/marketing displays, and knowledge about diet-health relationships influences what one chooses to eat and how it is consumed. Food choice may also be affected by season and environmental temperatures. Psychological influences of food may be associated with moods, emotions and events. The choice of certain foods may be associated with celebration, security, illness or even unhappiness, and thus be avoided or eaten only on certain occasions.

Food preferences, acceptance and appetite are developed through exposure to the physical characteristics of foods in combination with environmental and psychological influences. Food preferences (likes and dislikes) tend to limit the available food supply of an individual. The relationship between a dislike and non-use of a food is stronger than a liking for and consumption of a food. Food preference and acceptance are usually measured by hedonic scale and/or by frequency of use.

Women as gatekeepers of family food patterns

Nutrition has adopted the term "gatekeeper" to describe the role of women in the flow of food into the home. It is derived from the work of the social psychologist Kurt Lewin in the 1940s. Lewin's idea is summarised as: "Food gets onto the table through what he calls 'channels' such as the grocery store, the garden and the refrigerator. The selection of channels and the food which flows through them is under the control of the gatekeeper".

It is considered that Lewin's classic work on social-psychological aspects of food habits is still important today. He used four frames of reference to evaluate the choice of food: expense, health, taste and status. He found that these frames fluctuate from day to day in accordance with an individual's changing needs and that individuals have trouble verbalising the reasons for their food choices.

The concept of women as gatekeepers of family food patterns has been questioned by Charles and Kerr with the concept of women "privileging" their husband's food preferences and both women's and men's view on "proper food for a man". Charles and Kerr believe that: "Because food plays such an important role in the marital relationship, and regular provision of proper meals for men is a fundamental part of being a proper wife and mother, women are constrained by their partner's preferences".

Today many working wives are breaking away from this stereotyped role of the woman and housewife, though changing this role and reducing the traditional dependency on men is often bought at the cost of guilt and the rigours of the "second work shift" in the home. A 1988 survey by Worsley and Worsley in an Adelaide population produced evidence that re-distribution of domestic responsibilities is "minor" in households where the woman works outside the home in paid employment and that their responsibilities remain considerable. They report that this is consistent with international findings and that "the male hegemonic view" that the man is the main breadwinner and the woman, the "homemaker" is operating.

Crotty concludes that who makes decisions about what food is served in families is very complex. What is clearer is that women's food-related roles do not seem to be changing in terms of society's expectations of women and women's expectations of themselves. Within their traditional food-related roles, women do have a central influence on the provision of food in families.

Prestige value of foods and changes over time

A food's prestige is a measure of the position of the food in a hierarchy relative to society's values. The prestige of a food relates closely to preferences. It is interesting that a US study published in 1985 found that for 44 out of 111 foods studied, there was a positive relationship between preference for the food and perceived prestige, and that the highest prestige foods were beef and milk. In a further study conducted in the USA in the late 1980s, participants reported that foods chosen as high in prestige were also preferred foods, and that high prestige food sources were consumed relatively frequently by respondents. Beef and milk were again among the high prestige foods, which also included French bread, apples, strawberries, orange juice, broccoli, corn and chicken.

Food preferences and relationship to consumption

Food preference is the degree of like or dislike for a food, and can exist without consumption. Sociologists distinguish food preference from food acceptability, which is defined as denoting the consumption of food accompanied by pleasure. It therefore has a behavioural and attitudinal component. The dimensions of these related terms overlap and the causative factors of acceptability are not all explained by food preferences.

Other factors that impinge on food acceptability include:

  • a person's ideology or valuing system, and
  • an individual's distinctive characteristics, affecting the relative importance of food ideology, acceptability and preference on food consumption.

It is suggested that food preferences are largely determined in early life by culturally determined patterns, in which foods are consumed in specific combinations.

Whereas food selection is viewed as being determined by a series of factors, including food requirement, preferences, selectivity and availability, the importance of each determinant is mediated by the characteristics of the consumer, the environment, and the food itself. (e.g. meat and desserts dominate preferences). People tend to like or dislike entire classes of foods.

Also important are:

  • organoleptic properties of foods,
  • ease and method of preparation,
  • digestibility,
  • availability,
  • familiarity (especially for vegetables),
  • taste, texture, temperature, odour and appearance,
  • ease of eating,
  • frequency of exposure to food, and
  • association with other food.

The characteristics of the individual affecting food selection include whether male or female, and cultural, personal, social and situational factors. Men and women differ significantly in terms of food selection. Classes of food more highly preferred by men are meat and meat products, fried foods, eggs, beer and full-fat foods. Interaction with family and friends influence preferences through personal likes and dislikes and exchange of recipes and foods. Personal factors of age, educational attainment, imagination, and need for emotional support also influence one's receptivity to new ideas.

Characteristics of the environment are noted as the season, employment, mobility, degree of urbanisation, household size and stage of family. The variables identified are based on past studies, on criteria of frequency of isolation, and/or the strength of the proposed association with food preferences.

The results of research suggest that food likes and dislikes function differently in relation to impact on consumption, dislikes being strongly associated non-use of a food. Dislikes are a filtering system, after which the processes of selectivity become operational. A dislike is more strongly associated with rejection, than is food like associated with consumption.

Survey of food preferences in the US Armed Forces

A comprehensive survey of food preferences of men in the US Army estimated food likes and dislikes through a questionnaire, using a hedonistic scale. Generally food preferences of servicemen corresponded to those of the general American population. Best-liked foods were grilled steak, ice-cream, French fries, hot biscuits and fresh milk. The survey demonstrated that food preferences are not capricious, and that people liked or disliked whole food groups or method of preparation.

Generalisations that could be made are:

  • The more one does to a food item in the way of adding vegetables, cream sauce etc, the less well-liked is the item,
  • Combined foods are less liked than individual foods,
  • Preferences vary with age and region of origin,
  • Menu combinations affect preferences, and
  • Frequency of serving and the satiety effect of a food is associated with preference.

Food Acceptance

To predict behaviour, the following are required:

  • A criterion
  • Knowledge of the components/factors operative in determining behaviour
  • Adequate techniques for measuring effects of components.

A model for the components of food acceptance include physiology (internal), sensation, and attitudes (external).

In man, one can be reasonably certain that past experience and attitudes established by them are going to be at least as important as the physiological state of the person, and the sensation elicited by the food. In particular, sociologists consider that experiences in the early years of life (prior to the age of 16 years) are among the strongest controlling factors in food preferences. In some cases attitude is clearly the most important factor, as is evidenced by refusal to even sample a food never experienced. Environment and learning have either direct or indirect effects through their influence on attitudes, and so on expressed food preferences.


All the evidence in the literature support the position that an individual's food patterns result from a wide range of factors that are complex and inter-related. Factors affecting dietary patterns and practices include physiological factors, food accessibility, food characteristics, environmental and psychological influences, food selection practices within the household, prestige value of foods, food experiences in the early years of life. The argument that the circumstance of service with exposure to service rations induced a food behavioural change to a diet higher in animal fats is supported by evidence linking food preferences to exposure to characteristics of foods, hedonistic characteristics intrinsic to many high fat foods, image of specific foods as comprising proper meals for men and that food selection of women is constrained by their partner's preferences.

Alternately the literature lists a large range of factors influencing food choices, that generally would not be associated with a period of serving in the armed forces or other dependency on institutional feeding. Of these, major factors include experiences in early life (prior to 16 years), which are among the strongest controlling factors in food preferences, alternative reinforcers available to the subject in post-service life (eg meat and milk rationing post-war service, medical/health advice re saturated fat diet), positive effect of deprivation of specific foods (eg low fat foods enjoyed pre-war), avoidance of certain foods associated with insecurity, illness or hardship, central influence of women on family food choices, culturally determined patterns of early life, and interactions with family and friends. One major point emphasised in the literature is that food likes and dislikes function differently in relation to impact on consumption with dislikes being more strongly associated with rejection and non-use of a food, than a food like is associated with consumption of that food.

On the basis of the above review and the universal agreement in the literature that many complex factors affect an individual's food patterns, it is considered speculative to place much weight on a period of military service as responsible for food consumption patterns maintained for a minimum period of 20 years, especially during a period when medical/health advice, changing food patterns in the community, and food availability in the market-place are contrary to these food consumption patterns. It is proposed that such a link can only be described as tenuous, and unsupported by a reasonable level of evidence.