Meet Sinéad Golley: Understanding the psychology of food choice

July 9th, 2023

With new forms of sustenance required to meet the nutritional needs of a growing global population, SINÉAD GOLLEY explores the psychology of food choice, and the role of Responsible Innovation in shaping the foods of the future.

Tell us about your research background, and how you started working in the RI FSP, and what led you to be curious about food choice. 

My background is in social cognitive psychology, focusing on heuristics, which is when people use mental shortcuts to make decisions. We can’t possibly attend to everything, so it’s a useful adaptation. But of course, it can lead to prejudice.  

When I emigrated to Australia from Ireland, I found it fascinating that people would make so many assumptions: that my family liked potatoes, that we’re friendly and like to talk a lot. I’m quite lucky, because these are mostly positive associations. But it made me think about the flipside, where snap judgments are made about people based on negative associations. That’s what I focussed on during my PhD at the University of South Australia.  

After joining CSIRO, I transitioned into the food choice space. My goal was to build our understanding of what motivates us when we make decisions about which foods we will – or won’t –eat. One example is how we as consumers use labels to make faster decisions about which food we put in our shopping cart – how we see phrases like ‘sugar-free’ and assume that means the product is ‘healthy’. 

I was particularly interested in people’s attitudes towards genetically modified food in my early days at CSIRO. Now I’m working on the social acceptability of novel and disruptive food technologies more broadly, with the understanding that we need to think about the risks, as well as the benefits, of these innovations. 

So it’s hardly a surprise that Responsible Innovation really calls to my heart. We’re doing research that puts the consumer and society front and centre in the context of innovation, at the Responsible Innovation Future Science Platform (RI FSP).  

Coming from a social science background, what was it about RI that interested you? 

In my earlier years working at CSIRO, I used to get brought in at the end of the research pathway. Researchers have already done some incredible science, and developed an amazing product to solve some of the knottiest challenges facing society. But if we can’t get consumers on board, then the science we do has limited potential to make an impact.  

With Responsible Innovation, we turn that on its head. We consider the consumer at the beginning of the research pathway, so that we’re solving a problem in the way that society wants it solved. This approach can let the cool science we’re doing realise the potential it has and really achieve its goals. 

What are some of the questions you are seeking to answer, from a RI standpoint, through your research? 

I really want to know what aspects of the latest science or technology is concerning for the community in general. This creates an opportunity for us to address those concerns, if they’re based on misunderstandings. Or, to establish an approach that is aligned with what the community finds acceptable.  

In doing so, we’ll be helping CSIRO to focus on the solutions that will have the most impact – which is aligned with CSIRO’s aim to improve the lives of people in Australia and around the world. People may not understand a lot of the science that we do here – even I don’t. It’s complex! Taking a responsible approach to innovation opens it up and makes it more transparent and accessible.  

I think the RI framework is amazing, because it makes us as scientists continually go back and revisit our aims and make sure we’re on track towards our end goal, which is solving problems for the public good.  

Your work has highlighted education and engagement as an important part of RI, when it comes to food. What have you observed as some examples of best practice here? 

After my work on gene tech, but before moving into RI, I looked a lot at food avoidance, particularly gluten avoidance. At the time, there was a lot of scepticism about why people were doing this. There was a sense that people were being too fussy, or overly sensitive – and not a small number of belittling memes.  

But our research looked at the motivations behind people’s avoidance of gluten and dairy, and found that in many cases people were doing it to manage really distressing symptoms. When I was doing press and promotion of the research, the response from the community was one of gratitude, that we were taking their concerns seriously.  

Our findings were a precursor to the investigation of non-coeliac gluten sensitivity which went hand-in-hand with further work being done by the scientific community, looking into FODMAP and other ways of managing these symptoms. It showed me that we have the potential to ask questions and delve deep into phenomena that seem simplistic from the outside. But when we do, we often uncover something really meaningful and scientifically significant.  

What do you think is the value is embedding RI from the innovation stage in food? Is there an opportunity to get on the ground to understand what some of the pressure points might be in the commercialisation landscape? 

I think there’s huge value to be found in embedding RI from the early stages of any scientific research – particularly food. People are super passionate about what they eat, which makes this a great area to be in. The community really gets on board, and they’re not shy about telling us their opinions, which is great! I’m all for feedback.  

In one recent project, we held focus groups for RI, looking at potential applications for 3D printing food. The results were really interesting. We saw parents of children with sensory issues particularly excited about this technology as a solution to help their kids have a more varied diet. It’s with studies like this that we can see the potential impact of a science on the individual, as well as the wider community.  

3D Printer Printing Prototypes

Credit: iStock/kynny

In terms of commercialisation, RI has the potential to focus our efforts on science that will have the best impact, rather than asking the community to jump on board at the end of the research process. This means asking questions before we get too far down that innovation pathway. It’s well-aligned with the commercialisation process, because ultimately it leads to greater uptake and acceptance.  

What’s key is that this approach translates across the board to any science, and that its scope is wider than commercialisation alone. It’s fundamentally about ensuring that people get to experience the benefits of the science we’re doing here at CSIRO.  

With massive public interest in nutrition and the arrival of innovations like meatless burgers, there’s a surge of innovation in the food space. What advice do you have for people who are finding the pace of change difficult to keep up with? 

I’d say that food is about choice. People are free to do what they want – what’s best for them. But we also need to keep our eyes on what’s good for the planet. Especially as scientists, we need to have that forward-looking lens. At the same time, it’s crucial to have lots of options for people.  

We don’t want options to be limited. We want people to continue to enjoy a whole range of delicious, healthy, nutrient-filled foods. After all, it’s more than just fuel for the body. Ultimately, consumers set the speed and vote for what they like and don’t like, and what they feel is safe. We just need to be mindful that this will continue to look different as we face the challenges of a growing global population, with food security threatened by climate damage.  

A good example of this is the interest in insects as a source of protein. Now, there are some places where they are already part of people’s diets. But in Australia and other similar countries, consumers are going to be really hesitant about eating insects. Using insects as a protein source is an area of great interest to scientists: they’re easy to grow, have a fast life cycle, a great nutritional profile, and potentially a much smaller footprint when farmed.  

But the science isn’t quite there, when it comes to understanding if this is a feasible solution – one that the wider community would be willing to accept. This is where RI can play a critical role, understanding the potential risks and benefits of novel foods before the science advances beyond what the public will accept.