A comprehensive analysis of reviews by Amazon customers has revealed that modern food products are too sweet. This conclusion comes from a study that analysed food product reviews published on Amazon, over the course of a decade.
The study was conducted by researchers from the Monell Chemical Senses Center, who used a ‘sophisticated statistical modelling program’ to find words which relate to a variety of aspects pertaining to food products, such as taste, texture, odour, spiciness, cost, health and customer service. After collating, and sifting through the data, complaints about excessive sweetness within the reviews seemed to eclipse all others. Results of the study have been published in the scientific journal Physiology & Behaviour.
“This is the first study of this scale to study food choice beyond the artificial constraints of the laboratory,” said lead author Dr Danielle Reed, a behavioural geneticist at Monell. Researchers looked at 383,568 food reviews published about 67,553 products, by 256,043 Amazon customers, over a 10-year period. With the assistance of machine learning algorithms, researchers were able to go through this vast archive and make determinations about the food, eventually realising that the majority of complaints were about how much sugar or other sweeteners were used in these items. “Sweet was the most frequently mentioned taste quality and the reviewers definitively told us that human food is over-sweetened,” said Dr Reed.
“Reading and synthesizing almost 400,000 reviews would essentially be impossible for a human team, but recent developments in machine learning gave us the ability to understand both -- which words are present and also their underlying semantic meaning,” added study co-author Dr Joel Mainland, an olfactory neurobiologist at Monell.
The study found that the ‘too sweet’ complaint impacted nearly 1% of all food product reviews, with excessive sweetness being mentioned 25 times more than complaints about too little sweetness. Furthermore, 11% of the reviews described how sweet a particular product tasted, almost three times more than bitterness. Surprisingly, saltiness was rarely mentioned, even when there has been a lot of public health concern about excess salt consumption.
To better understand individual differences in how people respond to a particular food, researchers looked at responses to 10 particular products that received the widest range of ratings - defined by the variability in the number of stars the product received. The analysis revealed that the two main factors that tended to account for polarising reviews for a product were: product reformulation and differing perspectives on the product’s taste. They found that people often rated the sweetness of a product differently. Response to a product’s smell also contributed to differences in opinion about a particular product.
“Genetic difference in taste or olfactory receptor sensitivity may help account for the extreme reactions that some products get and looking at the responses to polarizing foods could be a way to increase understanding of the biology of personal differences in food choice,” explained Dr Reed.
Overall, these results support the importance of taste in real world food ratings and individualised taste experiences, such as whether a product is ‘too sweet’. Researchers are confident that analysis of consumer review datasets is a promising methodology for the emerging field of sensory nutrition, as it can provide information about purchasing decisions and customer sensory responses to commercially available products.