Craving an extra-large chocolate milkshake but know you should order the smaller size instead? New research from the UBC Sauder School of Business suggests that simply imagining the taste, smell and texture of food or drink can lead consumers to happily choose smaller portions and even increase their satisfaction.


“We found that by asking people to imagine how a menu item might taste, smell and feel, they anticipated greater enjoyment and were willing to pay more for a smaller portion,” said Yann Cornil, the study’s lead author and an assistant professor in UBC Sauder’s marketing and behavioural science division. “That’s because their food choices were made based on sensory pleasure, which peaks with smaller portions, rather than on hunger or value for money.”

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The findings are not only important for consumers, who are increasingly faced with larger and unhealthier food portions at restaurants, but also for the food industry, which typically aims to earn larger profits by offering bigger portions at a higher price, said Cornil.

“Having more descriptive menus or product labels that encourage customers to use their senses can lead to positive outcomes for consumer satisfaction and health, but also for restaurant profits,” said Cornil. “This could make for a more sustainable food industry, which struggles to grow in the face of today’s obesity epidemic.”

Researchers used a series of experiments to investigate if imagining the taste, smell and texture of food led hungry, non-dieting participants to choose smaller portions of chocolate cake or a soft drink. On average, they found that participants who used their senses chose 25 per cent smaller portion sizes while anticipating greater enjoyment, and they were also willing to pay up to 30 per cent more for the smaller portions.

Researchers also found participants were more likely to choose smaller portions when they focused on the unhealthy consequences of large portions. However, this reduced their expected enjoyment from eating the meal and willingness to pay for it. The study’s results were replicated in five separate experiments among both children and adults, and among French and American consumers.

“Typically, health warnings or nutritional labels are used to encourage people to order smaller portions, but they tend to turn people off altogether,” said Cornil. “We found that imagining the taste, smell and texture of food can achieve a better balance between consumer enjoyment, business goals and public health.” 

The study which was co-authored by Pierre Chandon, a L'Oréal chaired professor of marketing at INSEAD, was published online this week in the Journal of Marketing Research.


  • Researchers ran five experiments involving nearly 1,000 French and American adults and children, who were asked to choose among different portion sizes of chocolate cake and to evaluate the expected enjoyment and willingness to pay for the chosen portion.
  • One group was randomly assigned to imagine the multi-sensory (taste, smell and texture) enjoyment of eating desserts, another group acted as a control and a third group focused on the health consequences of eating desserts.
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