The value of food reviews and customer opinions

Junior Burger
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2010/06/29 12:41:20 (permalink)

The value of food reviews and customer opinions

A few weeks back I was researching customer opinions about the food quality of anticipated competitors in my area.  I wanted to know what customers were saying about them so I visited sites such as Yelp and Chowhound to read customer reviews.

I recall reading comments that were all over the map.  Too salty, not salty enough.  Too sweet, not sweet enough.  Too spicy, not spicy enough. Tasty and bland.  Even in cases where a clear majority enjoyed the food, there was always a handful (1-5%) of tough critics and many more who were indifferent. Some people were incredibly harsh with their comments.

I got to thinking about some statistics I had read a couple months back published by the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. In a nutshell, people are either born with or eventually develop disorders that affect both taste and smell.  We're not talking small numbers here.  Genetics, age, smoking and even medications can play a role in our ability to taste.  According to the latest research, approximately 25 percent of Americans are nontasters, 50 percent are medium tasters, and 25 percent are "supertasters." That's 1 in 4 people who have a poor sense of taste...or about 77 million Americans. And another 2 in 4 are just average...another 154 million Americans.

Naturally, I began to wonder about the value of food reviews written by people and places we know very little about.  Certainly perceived meal quality and taste is affected by everything from preparation to presentation. But what about those 3 out of 4 people whose sense of taste and smell is at or way below average?

Food reviews offer no context.  With few exceptions, we know nothing about how the food was prepared, the quality of the ingredients, or how it was presented (though some reviews offer photos of the presentation).  More importantly, we know nothing about the people writing the reviews.  Do they suffer from phantom taste perception? Hypogeusia? Ageusia? Dysguesia? Are they even aware if they have a problem with their sense of smell or taste? Taste can be affected by such things as:
  • Upper respiratory and middle ear infections
  • Radiation therapy for cancers of the head and neck
  • Exposure to certain chemicals, such as insecticides and some medications, including some common antibiotics and antihistamines
  • Head injury
  • Some surgeries to the ear, nose, and throat (e.g., third molar—wisdom tooth—extraction and middle ear surgery)
  • Poor oral hygiene and dental problems

I concluded that individual food reviews, especially completely anonymous food reviews, are of little value. Without greater context it's virtually impossible to determine if the recipe, the restaurant, the reviewer, or some combination of the three is responsible for a favorable or unfavorable review. Aggregate reviews are only somewhat more helpful in that they help us see, on average, if customers enjoyed the food or not.  Heck, many people (myself included) may not realize they have an impaired sense of smell or taste if they have no point of we would have no idea that the problem is our impairment (and not the food).

Clearly such reviews are readily available from many online sources so they have an impact on the perception of others. And it's unfortunate that so many people simply believe what they read without question. But it is what it is, and I understand that. There's nothing you and I can really do about it. 

So I ask you, what is your opinion of customer food reviews?  How do you deal with them?

post edited by josephmartins - 2010/06/29 13:44:42

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