When you’re munching on carrots and celery in the school cafeteria or work lunchroom, do you ever wonder if other people can hear you? Do you suddenly feel the impulse to eat less to avoid being called a “chomper?” According to a recent study, it’s okay to be a loud eater, it could actually help you adapt better eating habits.

Researchers at Brigham Young University (BYU) and Colorado State University (CSU) found the sound your food makes while you’re eating could influence how much of it you actually eat. This is known as the “crunch effect.”

“Sound is typically labeled as the forgotten food sense," said Ryan Elder, an assistant professor of marketing at BYU's Marriott School of Management, in the statement. "But if people are more focused on the sound the food makes, it could reduce consumption.”  

In the study, Elder and his colleagues sought to verify how food sounds could help keep the eating habits of individuals in check throughout a series of experiments. To be clear, the researchers are talking about the effect that comes from the sound of mastication: chewing, chomping, and crunching. In each experiment, the participants only eat about 50 calories of the assigned snack (i.e., cookies, pretzels). They were asked to either think of eating sounds while eating, or to wear headphones that played loud or mellower sounds intended to drown out the intense sounds of chewing certain foods.

The findings revealed hearing or even thinking about eating sounds can make us eat less. When people were played an audio advertisement asking them to imagine sounds certain foods make while being chewed, they ate less. The more intense the sound of the mastication, the less they ate.

Among those with headphones, participants exposed to the louder background noise meant to drown out loud chewing ate four pretzels, compared to 2.47 pretzels from the group that wasn’t exposed to the extra noise. Here, the loud noise masked the sound of chewing, which led eaters to eat more.

Elder emphasized: “The effects many not seem huge — one less pretzel — but over the course of a week, month, or year, it could really add up."

A similar 2007 study found the more distracted an eater is, the more likely they are to overeat. Participants who ate while playing Solitaire felt less full after eating twice as many snacks and had a harder time remembering what they are than those who ate without any distractions. Eating in front of the computer or TV will only lead to “mindless eating,” or overindulgence.

Most people wouldn’t consider sound as an important sensory component during eating, compared to taste and sight. Previous research has focused on how extrinsic factors like environment and mood affects eating habits, but never intrinsic, like sound. Having this information could help people develop and stick with healthy food habits.  

Now, munching on popcorn at the movies, before the previews, could help you keep food cravings in check. Unlike eating popcorn while the movie plays, the “silence” before the previews does not mask the munching sound. The “crunch” effect will allow you to be mindful of your surroundings and make healthier and sound food choices.

People can apply the concept of mindful eating to their daily routine. Paying attention to the experience of eating and drinking, both inside and outside the body, can make you more attuned to your body’s needs. You can ask yourself “Where in the body do I feel hungry? In my stomach or in my mind?” This will be able to put the situation into perspective.

So, should you eat in silence to avoid overeating? Not necessarily.

Rather, the key takeaway is to be hyperaware of all your food’s sensory properties. Your senses are the best tools for mindful eating. Understanding your relationship with food means knowing when you’re full and when you’re eating in excess.

Source: Elder RS and Mohr GS. The crunch effect: Food sound salience as a consumption monitoring cue. Food Quality and Preference. 2016.