Science - November 24, 2017

New professor by special appointment studies eating behaviour

Tessa Louwerens

Liesbeth Zandstra has been appointed professor by special appointment of ‘Food Reward and Behaviour’. This chair is part of professor Kees de Graaf’s Sensory Science and Eating Behaviour group and is funded by Unilever R&D Vlaardingen.

© Unilever

Zandstra is back. She graduated in Human Nutrition from Wageningen UR in 1995. During her PhD in Wageningen, she studied acquired eating and taste preferences. And after her PhD graduation in 2000, she started working for Unilever R&D Vlaardingen, where she currently works as science leader Reward and Behaviour.

She now works at WUR one day a week. Her chair group will work on two research lines. ‘First and foremost, we will research which mechanisms cause us to like and appreciate something’, says Zandstra. ‘People find it difficult to make a healthy choice. Sweet, greasy and salty are just tasty, which makes them rewarding and thus tempting. Healthier alternatives contain less sugar, fat and salt. We want to find out which other aspects are rewarding, to try and use these as a compensation for the lack of sugar, for example. Many factors play a role, including personal taste, emotions and social aspects.’

In the second research line, Zandstra will focus on the measuring and improved predicting of consumers’ preferences. This is usually done using questionnaires, but it turns out that many people find it difficult to indicate in writ why they like something or what it is they like about it. Part of the reason is that this is often mostly unconscious. ‘We are therefore currently investigating other implicit methods, such as measuring the heart rate and brain activity, to determine what people perceive when rating a product.’

Zandstra hopes to use this knowledge to better estimate how a healthier product will fare on the market. As it stands, about eighty percent of new products fail – and that figure is even higher for healthier alternatives. ‘People know what’s good for them. But when they walk around the supermarket, their primary motivation is taste, followed by price; health only comes after that. If we can improve our understanding of these choices, we might be able to influence them, in order to have people choose the healthier products and keep consuming and appreciating those products in the longer term.’

Zandstra is not the only professor by special appointment who hails from Unilever R&D Vlaardingen. Rob Hame, Simeon Stoyanov and John van Duynhoven preceded her.