The tongue is widely regarded as being able to recognise five basic tastes: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami (a savoury flavour associated with foods including cooked meats and mushrooms). The way we actually taste flavours, however, is much more complicated.
We don’t just taste with our tongue. We taste with our eyes, nose, ears, and sense of touch. Even our current state of mind affects how we perceive flavours.
But what about our expectations? If we believe a food or drink should taste a certain way, will that actually affect what we taste?
Studies have shown time and again that perception does affect flavour.
When the exact same dish was presented as salmon ice cream and a frozen salmon mousse, diners were uncomplimentary about the “ice cream” but generally enjoyed the “mousse”.
In a blind taste test some participants failed to distinguish dog food from pâté.
So what’s really happening here? What factors are actually affecting what we taste? We decided to find out more, and to back up what we discovered, carried out a few tests of our own…
The Appearance of Food and Flavour
A study by Oxford University found that the flavour of even the most basic dishes can be improved if presented well, for example, by:
- Fanning avocado.
- Peeling cucumber into ribbons.
- Thinly slicing beef.
The Colour of Food and Flavour
Based on our previous experiences, colour can play a huge part in flavour perception – here’s a few of the most common food and colour associations:
However, there’s more to the relationship between food and colour than correlating a colour with a particular flavour or type of food.
When surveyed, 60% of people believed drinks served in a blue glass would be more thirst quenching than drinks served in a red glass – the conclusion being that we associate the colour blue with something being cold.
Another interesting find from side-by-side tests is that we perceive a drink which is pinkish-red in colour to be sweeter than a drink that’s green in colour – even if the green drink has 10% more sugar.
How Utensils Affect Food and Flavour
Even what you eat with can affect flavour.
Gold plated and stainless steel spoons were found to be the top choice for diners, having no noticeable effect on flavour. Silver plated spoons performed worst, giving off a metallic flavour that was most noticeable in acidic foods.
How Shape Affects Flavour
There’s a reason different types of wine should ideally be served in a specific size and shape of glass – it affects their flavour.
- White wines should be served in glasses with a smaller bowl, in order to concentrate the drink’s aromas.
- Red wines should be served in glasses with a large bowl, in order to release aromas.
- Sparkling wines should be served in flutes in order to trap the bubbles.
How Temperature Affects Flavour
Generally speaking, the warmer the food, the more intense its flavours. This is in part why red wine is typically served at room temperature (though for best results it should be cooled slightly in a wine fridge).
Specifically, sour and bitter notes are more pronounced when food and drinks are served warmer, and sweet and salty flavours are more noticeable in foods served at cooler temperatures.
Language and Our Perception of Flavour
The way food is described goes a long way to making it sounds more (or less) appetising.
In fact, research indicates that using more ‘rustic’ terms and ‘regional’ names, as well as generally being more detailed when describing dishes, makes food sound more appealing.
We put this theory to the test by designing a menu featuring two descriptions of the same dish.
The first described the dish as simply as possible. The second was much more elaborate, featuring fabricated names in an attempt to make the meal sound extra enticing.
Surprisingly, our survey revealed that the British public may in fact be wise to this tactic (or did they just spot the names we made up for the cheese and pasta)?
59.4% of respondents stated they would order dish one. 40.6% of respondents chose dish two.
Maybe fancy food descriptions are more effective in a restaurant setting, after a few glasses of wine…
Do More Expensive Wines Seem to Taste Better?
Does the price and appearance of a bottle of wine affect how it tastes?
We decided to find out by swapping a £20 wine with a £5 wine, and serving it to a group of taste testers. We then asked them to rate both wines, under the belief that the £20 wine really was a £20 wine (when in fact it was the £5 wine), and vice versa.
86% of tasters could not detect the difference between the cheap wine and the more expensive wine. In fact, they actually preferred the cheaper wine (while believing it to be the more expensive one).
Our Environment and Flavour Perceptions
Flavours (or how we perceive them) can actually be affected by the surroundings in which the food is consumed.
For example, when asked to describe the qualities of the exact same Scotch whisky in three different rooms, descriptions overwhelmingly reflected the room the drink was served in.
For example, when drinking the whisky in a wood panelled room, taste testers described it as having ‘oaky’ notes. Testers also stated the whisky tasted best in the wood panelled room.
How Sound Affects Flavour
Surprisingly, even what we can hear while eating or drinking affects flavour perception. For example, high-pitched noises enhance sweet and sour flavours, and low-pitched noise enhance bitter flavours.
How Our Memories Affect Flavour
This one makes a lot of sense – although you may not be conscious of its impact.
If you have a positive memory associated with a food – for example, enjoying a banana on a sunny day – when you consume that food in future it will taste better to you, simply because of how you felt when eating it before.
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