Everyone has heard the phrase "we eat with our eyes first," suggesting that the appearance of food is just as important as taste. Of course this saying has merit (who would want to eat a meal that looks disgusting?) and if you've ever watched a cooking competition, you know presentation is one of the main aspects of a dish that chefs are judged on. That being said, the appearance, smell, and even sound of food may have an even greater impact on the way we taste food, actually making it seem sweeter, more bitter, or even crunchier.
At least half of our food and drink experiences are determined by vision, sound and touch, according to research from Charles Spence, a professor of experimental psychology at Oxford University. Spence has conducted many experiments in multisensory integration, many of them finding that factors aside from the taste of the food itself may have a profound impact on the way we perceive it. In one experiment, Spence asked subjects to bite into various Pringles chips and through headphones played back their crunching sounds, which he manipulated to be muffled, louder or clearer. Even though all of the chips were the same, almost every respondent said they were different. Some said they had been sitting out longer and were softer, while others were fresher and crunchier.
Among his other studies, Spence has found that everything from the color of the bowl we eat from to the music we are listening to can change the way our food tastes. Some of his findings include: that strawberry mousse served in a white container rather than a black one tastes 10 percent sweeter; coffee tastes nearly twice as intense but only two-thirds as sweet in a white mug rather than a clear glass one; adding weight to a plastic yogurt container makes it seem about 25 percent more filling; bittersweet toffee tastes 10 percent more bitter if it is eaten while listening to low-pitched music; a cookie seems harder and crunchier when served from a rough surface; and that shoppers are twice as likely to choose a juice with a concave line on the label, which is reminiscent of a smile, rather than a convex, frown-like one.
Some people have criticized Spence's research, saying it's unnecessary and doesn't provide much useful insight, but take these examples into consideration. When Coca-Cola changed its can color to white to raise funds for endangered polar bears in 2011, people complained that they didn't like the drink's new formula, when in reality it was the same exact drink. Mondelez also had similar results in 2012 when it changed its Cadbury chocolates from rectangles to curved pieces, and people said it was too sweet. Spence also notes that his research could help consumers eat healthier, such as putting food in a blue container, which makes it seem saltier.
Other studies have resulted in similar results as Spence's, such as a 2003 study from Unilever that found that people's expectations for liking a product were determined by how it looked raw and in many cases, if the food was unappealing raw, the subjects liked the food less. Another study published in the journal Food Quality and Preference in 2012, found that the color of orange juice affects the way consumers preceive sourness, sweetness, bitterness, flavor strength and freshness.
The results of these studies, and others like them, go beyond just being helpful for manufacturers to design their chip packaging or determine what color to make their juice. It also may also force companies to ask an important question: what other factors that we haven't considered are impacting how our products are received by consumers?