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Dining in the dark: How uncertainty influences food acceptance in the absence of light

Wansink, Brian, Mitsuru Shimizu, Armand Cardello, and Alan Wright (2012). Dining in the Dark: How Uncertainty Influences Food Acceptance in the Absence of Light. Food Quality and Preference, 24(1), 209-212. doi: 10.1016/j.foodqual.2011.09.002

Visual cues play a fundamental role on food acceptance and intake. However, what happens under situations where such cues are masked by darkness – such as those involving deployed soldiers, night workers, and nighttime snackers? In previous research we found that consumers ate more comfort foods when there was no light because their reduced ability to monitor how much they ate. In this study we investigate how eating in darkness differentially influences the acceptance of ambiguous foods versus unambiguous foods, what causes this and what can ameliorate it.

In this study, 160 adult participants at the US Army Natick Soldier Center were invited to participate in a sensory study. Panelists were presented with an ambiguous food, beef enchiladas, or an unambiguous food, crackers. The light was manipulated so that some participants ate their given food in total darkness, or with normal lighting (control condition). Finally, some participants were given information about the food they would taste before they entered the sensory booth. Overall, our results confirmed previous research and added new depth to the topic and may be explained through differences in uncertainty about the product to be consumed. For the crackers, there was no decline in acceptance of the food regardless of light and product information manipulations. Yet, for the enchilada, participants reported lower acceptance when the food was eaten in the dark with no product information. If participants were given product information, their acceptance was the same as in the control condition. In summary, these results suggest that ambiguous foods eaten in the dark will be less liked and readily consumed than the same food eaten in standard lighting situations.

This research has implications for military and emergency personnel who are deployed in the field as well as for the general consumer. It is often reported that soldiers under eat when they are deployed. Improving the package labeling, or increasing the congruency of the odor and product could increase consumption. For the general consumer, making familiar foods less accessible to avoid eating them in the dark will reduce over consumption.