From spiky to spicy!

Hot or not? A study on conveying sensory information on food packaging

If you have travelled to a country where you do not understand its language this might be relevant for you!

How many times how you entered a grocery store and had to rely on its graphics to have a clue about a product’s characteristics (not to mention what it really is!). We look at the symbols present in the pack and infer how the product tastes like, and of course, if you would like it.

What is the process behind this? How do we interpret visual symbols and then infer a taste or flavour out of it? Many times it’s a learnt process; in a specific culture you learn that a particular symbol (imagine shape or colour in a food packaging) is repeatedly associated with a flavour or texture property of the food within. But why do some symbols work better than others in conveying such information? If you travel to a very different culture, perhaps that symbol might lead to the wrong association and therefore create very different expectations from reality.

In a recent collaboration with colleagues of the University of Zaragoza, we studied this a bit more in detail. We took as an example a package of snacks (nut mix) and studied the symbol of a fire to investigate what would make consumers imagine that the snack could either be roasted or spicy (hot). The particular characteristic that was changed from the symbol was the angularity of the fire symbol: one was a very angular, pointy flame, and the other one was more rounded. The hypotheses were that:

Example of an angular fire icon (left) and a rounded fire icon (right) bag of nuts designed for experiment

1) Spiciness would be associated with angular rather than with rounded shapes; 2) A product would be more easily associated with spiciness if the image depicted on its package has an angular rather than a rounded shape; and 3) The effect of shape angularity on spiciness expectations would be mediated by perceived aggressiveness of the shape.

The experiment was conducted following a within-subject design that was divided in three parts. In the first part, the participants were asked to indicate their association between spiciness and shape angularity. In the second part, they were asked to rate the perceived aggressiveness of each of the eight fire icons designed as stimuli for the experiment. The fire icons were displayed one at a time on the screen following a random order. Then, the third task consisted on a speeded classification task in which the effect of the shape angularity of the fire icons on sensory expectations was measured.

The results showed that there was a clear association between spiciness and angularity (supporting H1). In contrast, roasted flavour was not particularly associated with either shape. When people had to look at the snack packaging, the angular fire icons were associated with spiciness and the rounded fire icons were conversely associated with the roasted flavour, eliciting the respective expectations. More interestingly, the results showed that the association between spiciness and pointy shapes was affectively mediated, since perceived aggressiveness of the icons designed to convey sensory information increased spiciness expectations!

So next time you go to Asia and see a package of snacks with a pointy shape (or fire), most probably, a part of you will think it looks aggressive, which will translate to you expecting the snacks to be HOT! Will they be? Now we know a bit more about how cross-modal associations between spiky shapes and spiciness work.

Thanks to Ignacio Gil Perez, the main researcher of this study from University of Zaragoza, for visiting our group and making us your colleagues! Read the paper ‘Hot or not? Conveying sensory information on food packaging through the spiciness-shape correspondence‘ here (


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Betina Piqueras Fiszman

About Betina Piqueras Fiszman

Betina's research focuses on the exploration of new ways to understand consumers food preferences and motivations, both explicit and implicit. I investigate these processes by looking into relationships between the sensory characteristics of the product, consumer traits, cognitive and contextual factors, and their combined effect on perception, behaviour, and memorability.

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