Too much sweetness is 25 times more likely to be mentioned than under-sweetness.

By Mike Pomranz
June 27, 2019
Peter Dazeley/Getty Images

Reading Amazon reviews can be an annoying and tedious process. Why are you reviewing the product if you haven’t used it yet? Why are you complaining about the size of the box it came in? Are you even a real person?! But speaking of not-real-people, a team of taste and smell researchers at the Monell Center in Philadelphia came up with an idea: What if we used a machine learning algorithm to read, like, all of the Amazon reviews… or at least about 400,000 of them? Using this text-mining technique, they dug through the reviews of 67,553 food products on Amazon with a single hope: “to gain real-world insight into the food choices that people make.” Their findings: Our food is too damn sweet.

“Reading and synthesizing almost 400,000 reviews would essentially be impossible for a human team, but recent developments in machine learning gave us the ability to understand both which words are present and also their underlying semantic meaning,” said Joel Mainland, an olfactory neurobiologist at Monell and co-author of this new study on “The role of taste in the reviews of commercial food products.”

Focusing on keywords related to taste, texture, spiciness, and other factors, the researchers found that sweetness was a recurring them. “Sweet was the most frequently mentioned taste quality and the reviewers definitively told us that human food is over-sweetened,” the study’s lead author Danielle Reed, a behavioral geneticist at Monell, explained. Specifically, nearly one percent of reviews — regardless of food type — included the phrase “too sweet.” And in reviews that mentioned sweetness, over-sweetness was 25 times more likely to be mentioned than under-sweetness. Overall, sweet tastes came up in 11 percent of reviews, three times more often than bitter ones.

Of course, it’s possible that “sweet” is a more common descriptor that “bitter.” For instance, if a cracker is too sweet, I might say it’s “too sweet,” but if a cracker is too bitter, I might just say its “gross.” However, a representative for the Monell Center said these kinds of discrepancies were likely taken into account. The researchers worked with a program called Word2Vec that’s able to lump words together with similar semantic meanings.

Regardless, overall, the study came away with another large finding: When it comes to food products, taste is king. “Taste is mentioned in over 30 percent of consumer food reviews pointing to the primacy of sensory experience,” the paper lists as its primary highlight. Take that, nutrition!

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