Why are we drawn more to creamy ice cream or buttery mashed potatoes instead of crunchy carrots or dry granola bars (but then sometimes feel more guilty afterwards)?

A new study shows that the texture of foods can influence the types of food we are drawn to, as well as our perception of the amount of calories we’re eating. In the study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, researchers out of the University of Michigan, the University of South Florida, and Columbia University completed five experiments in which they examined oral haptics, or the way food feels in your mouth, as well as mastication (the degree of chewing). They aslo studied “orosensory perception,” or the way we judge the amount of calories based on texture and how a food tastes.

“We studied the link between how a food feels in your mouth and the amount we eat, the types of food we choose, and how many calories we think we are consuming,” the authors said in a press release.

In one experiment, participants watched TV ads while eating small bite-sized pieces of brownies. Half of the group was asked to estimate the amount of calories they consumed in the brownies, and the other half was not asked anything. In each group, some participants were given soft brownie bits and the others were given hard brownie bits. Those who were not asked to estimate calories ate more soft brownies than hard ones — while the ones who were asked to think about calorie content ate more of the hard brownie bits.

It appears we tend to think that foods with hard or rough textures tend to contain fewer calories than foods that are chewy, soft or creamy. “This ‘oral haptics-calorie estimation’ (OHCE) effect is driven by the lower mastication effort and the higher orosensory perception for soft (vs. hard) and smooth (vs. rough) foods,” the researchers state.

Understanding why we’re drawn to certain textures of foods can help us have a bit more control over how and what we eat. For example, understanding why ice cream or soft brownies are so appealing can help us make the choice to gravitate more towards soft or creamy health foods, like yogurt, stew, spaghetti squash, or mashed sweet potatoes with less butter.

“[F]ats endow foods with some key textural properties, including viscosity (thickness) and lubricity (slipperiness or oiliness),” Jean-Pierre Montmayeur writes in Fat Detection: Taste, Texture, and Post Ingestive Effects. “Food texture studies focused on the viscosity, elasticity, and orientation and elongation of food particles, often in relation to food acceptance. Texture studies showed, for example, that consumer preferences for yogurts and other dairy products were driven by perception of smooth or creamy textures that depended on fat content.”

The authors conclude that understanding “how the texture of food can influence calorie perceptions, food choice, and consumption amount can help nudge consumers towards making healthier choices.”