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If you're like most people, you find a bowl of chips nearly impossible to stop eating from. But it isn't just the salty flavor that makes them so irresistible.
New research suggests that we're drawn to foods labeled as "crunchy" because it enhances our auditory experience of the food. That's right: The crispy crunch of a potato chip—or a cracker, or even the snap of a cookie—may contribute as much to the appeal of these foods as their high-fat or sugary profiles.
Researchers at Boston College and the University of Texas at Austin conducted three studies to examine the effect a food's "sound salience" — i.e., a food that is marketed via auditory qualities, such as "crunchy" — had on consumption. They found that people consumed more food when they were labeled as crunchy, and more importantly, that they ate more when they could hear the crunch. (When researchers asked participants to wear headphones while snacking, inhibiting the sound of their foods, the participants ate decidedly less.)
In other words, food's sound experience matters: We like to hear food crunch as we chew.
"People are attracted to food that is labeled 'crunchy' because it offers an enhanced, richer, more fun sensory experience," says Nailya Ordabayeva, lead researcher and assistant professor of marketing at Boston College's Carroll School of Management, in an email to EatingWell. "People look for enhanced sensory stimulation when eating, and 'crunchy' [labels] offer such an experience by promising to consumers that the food will be louder and more fun to eat."
The researchers also tested the effects of packaging, asking participants to eat from both opaque and transparent containers labeled as "crunchy." When people could see the food they'd eaten, they ate less—but those who snacked from opaque containers ate more.
As Ordabayeva explains, "When people want to actively monitor how much they are eating, the sound of food makes it easier for people to track their consumption. When the food is packed in transparent packaging, it subconsciously increases people's desire to monitor their consumption. As a result, people end up eating less of crunchy food with a salient sound if the food is packed in transparent packaging [in place of opaque packaging]."
Of course, the research isn't perfect: Participants were asked to eat while watching a movie, an experience that in-and-of itself can lead to excess snacking. Plus, it's not surprising that participants consumed gobs of chips and candy, as these are foods that are tough to resist.
But even so, the research provides some helpful insight into how we might curb our junk-food addictions, and learn to love healthier foods. When we do purchase junk food, buying brands that sell food in transparent containers could help reduce how much we eat. And so could eating junk food while wearing headphones, the research points out: "One tactic would be to use physical barriers that impair the food's sound when consuming sound-salient foods, as consumption decreases in such settings," researchers write in their paper.
Plus, we can meet our need for crunchy foods with healthy options. Carrots, celery, pita chips, almonds, and peppers all provide a "crunch" without the drawbacks of junk food.
"The findings suggest that making the sound of food salient through claims like 'crunchy' can increase people's enjoyment of food and up consumption," says Ordabayeva. "So, this tactic and 'crunchy' labels can help increase the consumption of crunchy healthy foods—e.g., carrots, nuts—and healthy foods that have crunchy components—e.g., oatmeal."
For example, pairing this garlic and white bean dip—a good source of fiber, protein, and healthy fats—with bell peppers and carrots could satisfy your crunchy (and salty) cravings. And these pickled turnips will give you a crunch and just 12 calories per ¼-cup serving.
If you still need help saying "no" to not-to-good crunchy foods, here are some fun ways to eat more vegetables.
Related: The 10 Best Snacks for Weight Loss