Study of Amazon Reviews Finds Many Foods Are Overly Sweet Interview with:

Danielle R. Reed, PhD Associate Director Monell Center Philadelphia, PA

Dr. Reed

Danielle R. Reed, PhD
Associate Director
Monell Center
Philadelphia, PA What is the background for this study?  

Response: We saw an opportunity to learn about the sense of taste by studying several hundred thousand food reviews from Amazon. We were interested in how taste ‘rates’ on the list of things people mention when reviewing food items.

I had a friendly rivalry with my colleague Joel Mainland who studies smell (I study taste) to see which was most important, taste or smell. It turns out we are both right, people mention ‘taste’ much more than ‘smell’ but ‘taste’ is also a proxy term for overall food flavor, the combination of taste, smell and texture.  We were not expecting that people also complain about taste, specifically oversweetness. What determines how something is deemed to be ‘too’ sweet? 

Response: A food is oversweet if reviewers tell us that is their experience; we found that reviewers were much more likely to say a food was ‘too sweet’ rather than ‘not-sweet enough’. This leads us to wonder whether in an attempt to please some people, in general foods are oversweetened for most people. What are the main findings?

Response: There are four findings:

  1. First, ‘taste’ is king, beating other points that food might be evaluated, like price.
  2. Second, foods are too sweet for many people and this was a common consumer complaint.
  3. The third point that surprised us was that people mention sweetness much more than saltiness. Hypertension and salt-reduced diets are health concerns for many people yet sweetness and not saltiness is much more on the minds of reviewers.
  4. We also learned that some foods are polarizing – love it or hate it. These food wars may arise because not everyone tastes foods in the same way. We wonder if these differences are due to genetic differences among people. What should readers take away from your report?

Response: We can learn about human food choice by studying reviews which capture how people feel about food and what they want to communicate about it to others. When people talk about food, they talk about taste and sweetness. People can be extremely opinionated about food taste and berate others who don’t taste food in the same way. What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this work?

Response: We are excited to link food reviews to medical records and genotype information to see what we can learn from a big data perspective about human food choice, health, and genetics.

No disclosures.


Danielle R. Reed, Joel D. Mainland, Charles J. Arayata. Sensory nutrition: The role of taste in the reviews of commercial food products. Physiology & Behavior, 2019; 112579 DOI: 10.1016/j.physbeh.2019.112579


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Genes Determine Why We Don’t All Smell the Same Interview with:

Dr. Casey Trimmer, PhDGeneticist, was a post-doctoral fellow at the Monell Center when the research was conducted

Dr. Trimmer

Dr. Casey Trimmer, PhD
Geneticist, was a post-doctoral fellow at the
Monell Center when the research was conducted What is the background for this study?  

Response: We detect odors using 400 different types of sensor proteins, called olfactory receptors, in our noses. An odor molecule activates a specific combination of these receptors, and this pattern of activation gives us information on what we’re smelling–whether its floral or smoky, intense or weak, and how much we like it. However, how the system translates receptor activation to these perceptual features is largely unknown. Here, we take advantage of the extensive genetic variation in the OR gene family to understand the contribution of individual ORs to odor perception. By studying cases where the function of a particular OR is lost, we can examine what kinds of perceptual alterations occur, allowing us to link receptor to odor and understand what kind of information the receptor is encoding.

Data linking genetic variation to perceptual changes exist for only 5 ORs. Here, we examined the perceived intensity and pleasantness of 68 odors in 332 participants. We used next-generation genome sequencing to identify variants in 418 OR genes and conducted a genetic association analysis to relate this variation to differences in odor perception. We then use a cell-based assay to examine receptor function and investigate the mechanisms underlying our associations. Finally, we examined the contribution of single OR genotype, genetic ancestry, age, and gender to variations in odor perception.

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