Showing posts with label taste perception. Show all posts
Showing posts with label taste perception. Show all posts

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Tasty? Don’t Trust Your Taste Buds

You may think that you prefer this recipe over that one, but did you know that the sounds in the room – or the color of the plate your food is served on, or the weight of the fork you’re eating with – could be dramatically influencing your palate?  Fact is, whether it’s food or drink, scientists are learning that our taste buds can easily be manipulated by what our five senses are feeding us. 

I would like to think that I can trust my taste buds. But, truth be told, I already suspected that my other senses were influencing my opinions of the foods I eat in the beverages I drink.  For instance, while I don't know for certain that there is any actual taste difference between beer served in a can versus beer served in a bottle – or milk served in a glass versus milk served directly from a carton – I have always perceived that both of these beverages taste better in the glass.

Just me?

According to scientists, it's just about everyone. Let’s looks at some examples. 

Food tastes better – or worse – based on how it’s served

If you want to change the flavor of food, you can add salt, or you can use less salt. On the other hand, it turns out that you can simply change the color of the serving dish or the utensils and fool your brain into thinking that a food is already salted enough.

As crazy as this sounds, scientists in this 2011 study discovered that the color of the bowl from which popcorn was served completely changed the taste perception of the test subjects.  Participant felt that the popcorn was sweeter or saltier when, in reality, it was the exact same batch of popcorn. The only difference was the color of the popcorn bowl.

In a similar 2013 study using cheese, scientists served the exact same cheese but in different manners – such as using a toothpick, versus eating the cheese off a knife, spoon, etc. What researchers learned is that, mysteriously, the mind perceived the saltiness of the cheese differently depending on which way it was served.

Colorful bowls

And in another 2011 study, this one from Spain, scientists were able to dramatically manipulate how people felt about the taste and the appropriate price of a food based on nothing more than the weight of the dish in which the food was served.  By using the same batch of flavored yogurt, study participants were convinced that one bowl of yogurt was tastier – and should of course be priced higher – then another bowl of the exact same yogurt. The only difference? The weight of the bowl!

Of course, you may have already experienced something very similar to this, if you have ever felt that a meal served on a paper plate seems somehow less tasty than when served on a regular dish.  Whether or not this new knowledge will influence you to think differently about the quality or taste of your foods, the results of this study certainly provides a simple way for any cook or restaurant to improve what the diners think about what they are being served.  Try this: Next time you're tempted to serve up a quick meal by putting that hot dog and side of potato chips to your family on paper plates, put it instead on your best dishes and see if they come away from the meal feeling more satisfied and happier about dinner.

Woman comparing wine

Price tags make us think differently about taste

Have you ever been guilty of buying a bottle of wine that you chose because it was more expensive and you therefore thought that it would be a much better tasting wine?  Funny thing is, even if you thought you were right – that the more expensive wine tasted better – there's a good chance that you were wrong.
Caltech scientists have learned that our perception of the quality of a food or drink can be influenced by something as simple as the price tag. In the study, volunteers were served several wines, purportedly ranging in price from as little as five dollars per bottle to as much as $90 per bottle. By far, participants preferred the flavor of the wine that they were told costs more money. In reality, some of the wines come from the same bottle, and yet that same wine scored higher when the participants thought it cost more. 

Noise alters our taste sensations

In a study published in the British Journal of psychology, study participants came up with a completely different description for the taste of a wine depending on what music they were listening to as they tasted it.
And in a Netherlands study, scientists learned that people will perceive the taste of food differently depending on the atmosphere of the room in which the food is served.  In the study, blindfolded participants consumed the same food but with different background sound experiences, such as soft sounds (think a quiet, upscale restaurant), a high level of white noise (think a mall’s food court) or silence. Interestingly, study participants experienced the flavor of the food as being quite different depending on which aural environment they were in while eating.  Specifically, participants found that foods tasted more bland in the noisier environments.

We eat less when served food on a smaller plate

It turns out that one of the cheapest diet plans available doesn't involve what you eat at all, because we can easily manipulate our sense of satisfaction with the portions we are eating.  This recent Cornell University study indicates that we tend to eat less and feel fuller when we eat from smaller plates. 

Different size cups

As the study showed, putting the same amount of food on two different sized plates engendered completely different psychological effects on the test subjects. Those served the portion on a smaller plate, which was relatively overflowing with food, felt more satisfied than those served the exact same portion on a larger plate, which obviously had plenty of room to spare. 

The implication of his study: What you see is how much you eat.  So, rather than spend a ton of money on a diet plan, why not simply eat off of smaller plates?

Taste is a many splendored thing

One useful lesson from these studies; you can have more satisfied diners at your table without changing your recipes.  Simply serve your food in a way that positively engages all five senses, and your reputation for cooking will score bonus points.

Ric Moxley
Contributing Writer