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Think about the best brownie you’ve ever had. What was it like? Fudgy, chewy, melt-in-your mouth? Got it. Now, on a scale of carrot stick to Cronut, how healthy was this brownie? You get my point; I think we can all agree ooey-gooey brownies aren’t typically a low-cal treat. Plus, a new study in the Journal of Consumer Research suggests that people actually think foods with softer textures (hello, cupcake) have more calories.
In the study, researchers asked participants to watch and evaluate a series of TV ads. While participants thought the premise of the study was to assess the commercials, the researchers focused instead on their subjects' eating habits. They gave each person a cup of bite-sized brownies to snack on during the experiment; half the brownies were soft, and the other half were hard. Half the participants were asked about the calorie content of their dessert, while the other half were not. The participants who weren’t bugged about their treat’s nutrition (or lack thereof) consumed more soft brownies. But, when calorie content was openly discussed, the participants ate more of the hard, perhaps less-appealing brownies.
According to the researchers, texture influences our perception of what’s a caloric indulgence and what’s not; one explanation may have to do with the way fat creates tempting textures in foods. Research shows high fat content is often related to palatability and high energy density (the amount of calories per gram of food). And, with fat’s bad rap, it’s no wonder some of us fear eating too much of it. Other studies agree that sensory properties of food, including its texture, play an important role in the way we select our food and in how much we eat.
Does harder-to-eat, crusty, less-palatable food always denote a healthier option? Thankfully, no. In brownies, at least, it's relatively easy to add nutrients, healthy fats, and fiber to a recipe by sneaking in ingredients like mashed avocado, banana, beans, or puréed veggies. So, technically speaking, a softer texture does not always mean you’re headed for the junk-food motherlode.
It may be too much of a stretch to say texture determines what’s healthy and what’s not — because, as we’re learning more and more, a food is more than just its calorie content. But, this study shows our perception of food (without seeing a nutrition label, that is) can be dependent on many factors — not just taste and smell. Perhaps we can consider these findings a food hack for portion control: Are we less likely to overindulge in a food with a softer texture? We'd like to think so, but then, there's Cronuts...