The science of taste: Why everything from sound to shapes can affect your taste buds
From the color of your plate to the cost of your food, science reveals how to create an ideal personalized dining experience — or at least the illusion of one.
Mon, May 19, 2014 at 01:52 PM
Love chocolate? What if you could make it taste sweeter? Believe it or not, you can accomplish that goal without altering the chocolate at all.
In fact, studies show it could be as simple as placing the chocolate on a white plate and eating it while listening to a high-frequency sound and looking at a round-shaped object.
Up to 80 percent of what we consider taste is actually our sense of smell, but there's more to taste than olfactory glands and taste buds.
Taste can be influenced by a variety of factors — from color and cutlery to emotion and price.
Color and lighting
Chefs and food marketers have known for decades that the color of food can influence how we perceive taste.
Psychologist and marketer Louis Cheskin pioneered research in how color and design affected product perceptions. His work increased margarine sales in the 1940s when he suggested it be colored yellow to more closely resemble butter.
To take a more recent example, in 2011, Coke pulled its white holiday cans — which raised money for the Arctic Home campaign — four months early partly because consumers thought the soda tasted different.
But it isn't just the color of food or its packaging that affects our taste perceptions — it's also the color of the plate.
A 2011 study found that participants rated strawberry mousse to be sweeter, more flavorful and of higher quality when served on a white plate than when served on a black one.
A similar study revealed that people thought hot chocolate tasted best when served in orange cups.
Our taste buds can also be influenced by colored lights. A study conducted at Johannes Gutenberg University in Germany found that people rated wines as better tasting when they sipped it under red or blue light rather than green or white light.
The power of sound
Research shows that listening to certain sounds can change the way food tastes.
An Oxford University study had participants eat toffee while listening to high- and low-frequency sounds and found that the candy was ranked as sweeter by those listening to the high-frequency sound and more bitter by those who heard the low-frequency sound.
Try the experiment yourself by listening to these sounds while eating chocolate or drinking coffee.
This phenomenon has inspired Ben & Jerry's to look into creating a sonic range of ice cream flavors with QR codes on their packaging that allow people to listen to complementary sounds on their phones.
High levels of white noise can also affect both the intensity of flavor and the perceived crunchiness of food. Researchers at the University of Manchester gave study participants salty and sweet foods to eat while in a quiet room and then while wearing headphones that produced noise equivalent to an airplane.
They found that food consumed while hearing the background noise was rated as less sweet, less salty and crunchier.
Previous studies have shown that loud noises — such as that of an aircraft engine — can reduce our ability to taste flavors by up to 30 percent, which explains why travelers often complain that airline food tastes bland.
From cost to cutlery
Other factors that can influence how food tastes may be even more surprising. Are you in love? Chances are, your food tastes a little sweeter.
Scientists looked into whether there's truth in emotional metaphors like "love is sweet" or "bitter jealousy," and found that even water tastes sweeter when you're in love. However, jealousy doesn't seem to bring out bitter or sour flavors in food.
The type of cutlery you use can alter the tastes you experience too. For example, cheese tastes saltier when eaten with a knife, and yogurt tastes denser and more expensive when eaten with a plastic spoon, according to a study.
Shapes can also affect our perception of taste — and not just the shape of the food. A Chinese study found that looking at circular or elliptical shapes while drinking water caused participants to taste sugar even when none was present.
And even price can play a role. Recent research from Cornell University reveals that diners rate the quality of their food higher when they pay more for it.
After dining, people paid less for the exact same meal even reported feeling more guilty, bloated and uncomfortable.
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