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Essay: How Food Disgust Sensitivity Affects Eating Behavior: A Study by ETH Zurich Researchers

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  • Published: 1 February 2018*
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  • Words: 838 (approx)
  • Number of pages: 4 (approx)

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A glass of recently expired milk may be disgusting to some, but to others it may be perfectly fine to drink. Every person has a different level of disgust towards different food items and situations. Why is this so? Is it just because we are programmed to react differently to different food situations, or do different factors contribute to our level of disgust? How far does this ‘level of disgust’ affect our eating preferences?

A group of researchers – Aisha Egolf, Michael Siegrist and Christina Hartmann from ETH Zurich (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich), decided to investigate on how ‘Food Disgust Sensitivity (FDS)’ affects our eating behavior. Food disgust sensitivity is like a scale – it is a measure of how easily you are disgusted by different situations involving food, such as eating rotten food or eating with dirty utensils. The researchers aimed to study how different eating behaviors are shaped, as they believed that this information will be important for the purpose of better marketing food products as well as to find ways to reduce food waste.

The researchers wanted to relate people’s food disgust sensitivity to different factors – their age and gender, how often they suffered stomach issues, their eating preferences and behaviors, as well as how often they waste food. In order to do this, the researchers created a questionnaire which was filled by about 1200 randomly selected participants from a German-speaking region of Switzerland, who were aged 20 and above. The questionnaire first measured their FDS through a series of situations to which they were asked to rate their disgust. From their answers, a score was generated which reflected their food disgust sensitivity, or how easily they were disgusted by distasteful situations.

The next section of the questionnaire asked the participants about their demographic features such as age and gender, their experience with stomach problems, their eating habits and finally, how often they waste food. Each part of the questionnaire was categorized systematically such that every aspect had a ‘score’ based on their answers. For example, under eating habits, participants were asked how they felt about eating new food items through a series of questions – each of which had several answers they could choose from, each representing a score. From each answer, an average score was generated for that particular aspect which showed how much of that aspect is reflected in that person. For example, a high score on the ‘eating new food items’ category mentioned above meant that this person was more likely to try new food items. These scores were then compared to their FDS score to see if there is any relation between them using statistical methods.

After analyzing the results, the researchers found that people’s FDS increased with age, and was higher in women than in men. Other research (Curtis et al. 2011) have concluded that disgust towards certain food is the result of our survival instinct to avoid the ingestion of disease-causing bacteria and toxic substances. On the basis of this, the researchers concluded that a higher FDS in older people may be due to them being more susceptible to disease, thus prompting them to eat less foods with high risk of giving them disease. Women, as they are the ones bearing children, must also reduce their risk of disease for their child or future child’s well-being. This explains their higher FDS.

They also concluded that FDS was higher with people having more stomach problems or complaints over the years. The researchers deduced that this was due to people being more disgusted towards food they ate before they suffered from a stomach problem. For eating habits, a higher FDS was related towards people who were more picky eaters and more likely to be disgusted by weird textures of food. They were also less likely to find and eat different varieties of food. Finally, the researchers concluded that people with a higher FDS tend to more frequently waste food. This was due to people being more easily disgusted by perfectly edible foods which were slightly contaminated or aged (for e.g., partially decayed food).

So, if you are easily disgusted, or feel like you’re a picky eater, it may not entirely be your fault. It may just be because of your age or gender, or because you may have experienced a lot of stomach problems. You may now relax a bit and explain your eating behaviors to those who judge. However, being easily disgusted can also lead to more food waste. So, take a few risks and try to eat more food items you may be disgusted by. Just make sure that the food is still edible. Or perhaps, manufacturers could also create food which when aged but still edible, does not look bad or have less features of rotten food. Figuring out how our eating behaviors are shaped is just one part of the puzzle – with this information, a lot more could be achieved. Most importantly, food waste could be reduced and food products could be better marketed.

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