Evaluating Consumer Emotional Response to Beverage Sweeteners through Facial Expression Analysis
Emotional processing and characterization of internal and external stimuli is believed to play an integral role in consumer acceptance or rejection of food products. In this research three experiments were completed with the ultimate goal of adding to the growing body of research pertaining to food, emotions and acceptance using traditional affective sensory methods in combination with implicit (uncontrollable) and explicit (cognitive) emotional measures. Sweetness equivalence of several artificial (acesulfame potassium, saccharin and sucralose) and natural (42% high fructose corn syrup and honey) sweeteners were established to a 5% sucrose solution. Differences in consumer acceptability and emotional response to sucrose (control) and four equi-sweet alternatives (acesulfame potassium, high fructose corn syrup, honey, and sucralose) in tea were evaluated using a 9-point hedonic scale, check-all-that-apply (CATA) emotion term questionnaire (explicit), and automated facial expression analysis (AFEA) (implicit). Facial expression responses and emotion term categorization based on selection frequencies were able to adequately discern differences in emotional response as it related to hedonic liking between sweetener categories (artificial; natural). The potential influence of varying product information on consumer acceptance and emotional responses was then evaluated in relation to three sweeteners (sucrose, ace-k, HFCS) in tea solutions. Observed differences in liking and emotional term characterizations based on the validity of product information for sweeteners were attributed to cognitive dissonance. False informational cues had an observed dampening effect on the implicit emotional response to alternative sweeteners. Significant moderate correlations between liking and several basic emotions supported the belief that implicit emotions are contextually specific. Limitations pertaining to AFEA data collection and emotional interpretations to sweeteners include high panelist variability (within and across), calibration techniques, video quality, software sensitivity, and a general lack of consistency concerning methods of analysis. When used in conjunction with traditional affective methodology and cognitive emotional characterization, AFEA provides an additional layer of valued information about the consumer food experience.