“Minor changes in food properties can have a major impact”

From sandwiches with cheese to French fries with mayonnaise: frequently-paired foods have received scant attention in research on eating behaviour and sensory science. A missed opportunity, according to TiFN PhD fellow Arianne van Eck, who found that relatively small changes in either carrier or condiment properties can have a major impact on eating rate and sensory perception. On Friday June 19, 2020, she graduated cum laude from Wageningen University & Research.

Thoroughness is characteristic of this young scientist, who obtained a MSc in Sensory Science at Wageningen a few years earlier. “I am always looking for the Why? of things and I like to immerse myself in a subject”, she smiles. The moment she saw a PhD vacancy in the TiFN Smooth Bite For All project she applied, and was accepted.

Single foods versus composite foods

In her PhD project Van Eck investigated the role of single food properties in oral processing behaviour, intake and sensory perception of composite foods. “Most meals involve a range of different foods: for example crackers with cheese or French fries with mayonnaise”, she explains.

Decreasing eating rate

The PhD fellow used advanced video technology and electromyography with jaw tracking to measure different aspects of oral processing behaviour, such as total mastication time, number of mastication strokes and overall eating rate. This revealed surprising new insights. “Carrot cubes, for example, are swallowed more quickly than carrots cut julienne, because they can be chewed more efficiently”, she illustrates. Another interesting finding was that people tend to eat more cheese in combination with a flat cracker than with a breadstick. “Surprising – but useful – is the finding that this does not affect satiation.”

Van Eck’s work has provided interesting leads for product development and nutritional interventions. “If you want, for example, to decrease eating rate to reduce food intake, we suggest increasing the firmness of the carrier food, changing the carrier shape – many small pieces instead of one large piece –and/or adding a condiment with a high viscosity”, she explains.

Van Eck also found that consumer ability to identify different foods reduces when foods are combined together within one bite. “This can be of particular interest in the design of healthy and/or sustainable foods in which establishing excellent sensory quality still poses a challenge”, she says. “Imagine the development of salt/sugar-reduced condiments for salads or French fries.”

PhD journey: opportunities and freedom

According to Van Eck, the years as a PhD fellow have been among the best of her life. “I really enjoyed the opportunities and the freedom to pursue my research and to develop myself”, she says. Presenting research outcomes, writing scientific papers and guiding MSc students all went smoothly. “I learned to collaborate with other scientists and with people from the food industry”, she adds. “I now have a valuable network that will support me throughout my career.”

The graduate has yet to choose her next role. “I am still reflecting on whether I should continue in academia or in industry”, she says. But there is one thing she is sure of. “Healthy nutrition and sensory science is an ocean into which I, so far, just dipped a toe.”

Want to know more about Van Eck’s work? Click here.

Photo credits: Sven Menschel, www.phddefencephoto.com