Supermarkets are one of the most visually striking spaces today. In fact, they have been for decades.
All our senses come together there, the environment is programmed to do so: labels, colors, organization, position, brightness, images… Everything is arranged to attract attention, to attract the big or the small, to pass through us in the form of desire.
From the earliest age, we take taste to certain flavors, but especially to certain ways of presenting them to us. The food industry has always known this and knows even better how to shape this taste. Marketing turns supermarkets into amusement parks for our brains: it only takes a few visits for our spatial memory, our ability to remember certain places and the location of objects in relation to each other, to be given a real treat. But what about any kind of food?
A study recently published in “Scientific Reports” says no. The new findings suggest that our spatial memory in these spaces is determined by the efficient placement of calorie- and energy-rich foods. We don't forget where the sweets, chocolate, bags of snacks and candy are.
A benefit to our ancestors
Of course, this is the result of a process of exposure to food products over the centuries, which has been particularly and exponentially accentuated during the 20th century, but not only.
The authors of this research believe that human spatial memory, in this sense, was already developed in prehistoric times. They point out that it may have allowed our hunter-gatherer ancestors to prioritize the location of reliable food, which gave them an evolutionary advantage.
“Our main message is that the human mind appears to have been designed to efficiently locate calorie-rich foods in our environment,” says Rachelle de Vries, PhD in nutrition and human health at Wageningen University in the Netherlands and lead author of the new paper.
To reach this conclusion, the team first observed 512 participants in front of a range of foods, from fruits and vegetables to muffins and brownies. They found that most of them followed a fixed path in the room they were in.
They had placed eight food samples in front of them in the form of eight cotton swabs that smelled of particular foods. When they reached a sample, participants tasted the food or smelled the cotton swab and evaluated their taste. Four of the food samples were high in calories, including brownies, and the other four, such as cherry tomatoes and apples, were low in calories.
After the taste test, participants were asked to identify the location of each sample on a floor plan. And then, surprise: all participants were almost 30% more accurate in identifying high-calorie samples than low-calorie samples, regardless of their taste or smell. They were also 243% more accurate when presented with the food in its actual form, regardless of its smell.
“The human mind continues to harbor a cognitive system optimized for energy seeking in the erratic food habitats of the past.
“These results suggest that human minds continue to harbor a cognitive system optimized for energy seeking in erratic food habitats of the past, and highlight the often underappreciated capabilities of the human sense of smell,” the authors note. The problem is that energy-efficient food is not the same today as it was in the past. It's not the same to dive into a tree full of fruit as it is to dive into a shelf full of saturated fat products.
The researchers say they have reason to “suspect that the spatial memory bias of high-calorie foods may encourage people to choose high-calorie foods by making high-calorie options easier or more convenient to find and obtain.”