When choosing our food, our conscious self is never in full control – I always let my cravings get the best of me. For instance, when I am sad I eat ice-cream; when I smell a pizza, I will instantly want to eat one. But have you ever considered how our hearing can impact on food choices?

In London, there are approximately 39,000 food service establishments. In order to compete with other restaurants, store managers will use different sensory cues to lure us into consuming their food. Bakeries, for example, pump out the smell of freshly baked bread to attract customers, while some stores play the UK top 40 to make themselves more appealing to a younger age group. This influence also extends to music and background noise, with both genre and volume having an impact on our appetite and food choice.

A study published in late April by Professor Dipayan Biswas and collaborators has demonstrated how music can influence our choice of eating either healthy or unhealthy food. Their hypothesis was based on previous findings in different studies: our perception of taste can be modified via ambient music; in a noisy environment our perception of sweetness and saltiness decreases while the crunchiness of food is enriched. Other studies have shown emotional connection to background music can also affect how one evaluates wine. These examples goes on, but no one has studied the effect of music on our choice of food until now.

“Higher music volume can elicit excitement, leading us to choose unhealthy food”

From these results, the researchers hypothesised that music can impact on our mood: higher music volume (e.g. club music) can elicit excitement, leading us to choose high energy and unhealthy food, since these fatty foods help reduce stress and high level of excitement. Vice versa, music that prompts us to relax may help us to make healthier food choices, as we gain better control of ourselves. This effect is demonstrated by mindfulness exercises that emotional eaters implement to help them lose weight, with a study finding that individuals who practice relaxation exercises have greater control in food consumption.

Testing this in the laboratory, supermarkets and cafes, results showed background music has an effect on our emotional state, as reflected by heart rate. A more relaxed mind-state, as indicated by a lower heart rate, is linked to an increased preference for healthy food. In the experiments conducted in both supermarkets and cafés, low volumes of music and background noise correlate with increased sales of healthy food, regardless of the genre of music, implicating how subconscious cues can trigger consumption of food.

Translating this knowledge into real-life applications, perhaps restaurants that sell healthy food may want to have gentle, quiet music floating in the background, while fast food chains can turn up the volume to boost sales. Other business strategies could also be modified accordingly using the results of this study: when designing menus for a stall in a noisy setting, such as a food market, they should focus more on selling unhealthy food, as consumers are more likely to purchase such items in this setting. Just imagine how likely you are to choose a burger over a salad in Borough Market!

“The definition of ‘high volume’ used in the study is itself quite obscure and subjective”

This can even be extended to the design of the market or malls, as building walls can be designed to absorb sound to create a tranquil environment, or walls can even be put between sub-departments to allow different volumes or genres to be played in different areas.

As for us, if we want to purchase and consume healthy food, perhaps we can plug in our calming music when we are going for our grocery shop, so we won’t ‘accidentally’ bring home the whole snack aisle. Otherwise, we could choose to dine in places with a lower volume of background noise, therefore reducing subconscious cues to binge eat highly calorific food.

Nonetheless, this study only demonstrated there is a correlation, with the cause of this underlying process yet to be understood. On top of that, we all have a preference for an optimal music volume. For example, I turn my music up so loud that you can hear it through my earphones, and I find that ‘just right’. My roommate disagrees, as she thinks a silent environment more relaxing. Using this example, it is clear the definition of ‘high volume’ itself is quite obscure, and some individuals might find loud music more relaxing than quiet background noise. Furthermore, background noises – people chatting, glasses clinking, intercoms – cannot be controlled in real life situation such as in a supermarket or a café, rendering these finding limited to individual context. While these findings are not a universal rule to be follow at all costs, perhaps it is still a cheeky method into tricking ourselves to eat healthily!