The 5 Weirdest Things That Influence How Your Food Tastes
We never get tired of optical illusions (particularly that mind-melting one with the gray squares) -- it's good to remind yourself that your senses can't be trusted. But the one sense you'd think you could trust is taste -- nobody is going to convince you that a hamburger is apple pie.
But, as with the other four senses, your taste is manipulated by a whole bunch of factors outside of your control. Like ...
What Your Mom Ate While You Were a Fetus
Obviously, the food you ate as a kid growing up will influence your tastes for life. But it starts earlier than that. In fact, the foods your mother ate while you were in the womb influence what your favorite foods will be.
The study on this was carried out by researchers from the not-at-all-evil-sounding Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, who had pregnant women drink a bunch of carrot juice while pregnant and then while breastfeeding (with various groups changing up when they drank it). The results? The kids whose mothers were given the carrot juice, regardless of the stage when they were given it, were less grossed out when fed a carrot-flavored cereal one month later.
And in fact, the kids whose mothers had carrot juice during both stages (during pregnancy and during breastfeeding) reportedly couldn't get enough of the stuff. And this is freaking carrot juice we're talking about here.
It makes sense in a way, considering the food your mom ate flavored both her breast milk and the amniotic fluid that surrounded you in the womb. Still, you'd think the residual carrot flavor would be imperceptible, having filtered through her body in the course of metabolizing it. You might like the taste of pork gravy but you wouldn't want to go lick the sweat off of a guy just because he eats it every day.
But, science says you're wrong. So go try it.
The Label -- Even If It Lies
It would be no surprise to find that, for instance, people think food in fancy packaging is better than something of equal quality that came in a box featuring a picture of a poorly drawn clown and Comic Sans font. That's why artists and designers get paid, it's why labels exist in the first place. But the influence a label has on the actual taste experience runs much deeper, and much weirder, than that.
First there's the experiment that found that simply labeling a food -- in this case, bologna -- as low-fat will result in people rating it as tasting worse than the equivalent full-fat version. No low-fat food was used in the experiment at all, meaning that both times, the participants were actually eating the full-fat bologna, the stuff they'd presumably eaten at some point in their lives and should have been familiar with.
Even weirder, a study conducted in 2002 found that simply adding the name of a substance onto the list of ingredients was enough to make people taste it within the food they're eating. Specifically, they gave the same nutrition bar to two groups, but for one group they added the word "soy" to the label (the bar had no soy in it). The soy label group thought their bars tasted much worse. They were almost four times as likely to say it had a weird taste than the group eating the exact same bar, only without that word on the label.
And those results hold up even when trying to filter out opinion -- these people weren't just asked if it tasted "good" or "bad." The testers with the supposed soy in their bars complained that it had an aftertaste, the other group didn't. The soy labellers also said the bar was "grainy."
All of those tastes and sensations were perceived only because they had (apparently) been conditioned to equate soy with tasteless health food. So, seeing that word on the label literally made it taste that way.
Imagine the fanciest possible restaurant. If you never go to places like that, picture one from a movie -- white tablecloth, everyone has wine and there is soft, classical music playing in the background.
Now imagine a cheaper, family dining type place, like T.G.I. Friday's. There's loud pop music, often to the point that you can't hear yourself think.
Obviously these establishments are putting some thought into what they want their customers to hear. But why? Is it all about atmosphere? Not according to science. First, when you eat in places with high noise levels, you lose the ability to accurately gauge how sweet or salty your food is. It has to do with the way your brain is wired -- continual loud noises whip the neurons of your ear up into such a rage that for no reason they stage an all-out assault on the weaker neurons of your taste buds.
A cynical person could say that restaurants with lower quality food crank up the noise so that you're less likely to notice it, but we have no way of knowing that (maybe they just think the music adds to the "fun" atmosphere).
That's not to say that the optimum eating experience means dead silence -- otherwise that sad, lonely sandwich eaten quietly over the sink in your apartment wouldn't taste so much like shame. Science agrees with those stuffy restaurants you were imagining at the beginning -- if you pipe in music at a volume of between exactly 62 and 67 decibels (about the level that human conversations are held) the food served will be rated as tasting nicer than the exact same food served outside of this specific volume range. There, the music is just audible enough to arouse the senses, but low enough as not to overwhelm them (also, classical music works best). For the senses, the difference between soft and loud music is like the difference between an invigorating swim in a cool swimming pool and having somebody dump a bucket of ice water over your head.
All of this applies to drinking establishments too, by the way. Research found that your opinion of wine largely depends on what kind of music is being played while you drink it. Subjects changed their ratings of the wine by up to 60 percent depending on the soundtrack, which we're assuming means you could open a joint selling prison-brewed toilet wine by the glass, as long as you played fancy music while people drank.
Your Personality and Mood
You already know that people eat fatty and sweet food when they get stressed out -- the snack food industry pretty much depends on this for half of their yearly sales. The simple explanation is that when we're in a bad mood we want to eat something that will make us feel good; the sciencey explanation has to do with how sugar and carbs can boost the levels of Serotonin in the brain. But, strangely, stress can also change the way food tastes to you.
In a somewhat diabolical 1998 study, scientists asked a group of people to each taste a sample of artificial sweetener, and then they went about stressing those people out. They first assigned them each a task of unscrambling a series of jumbled-up words, which might not sound very stressful, but the scientists deliberately designed half of these puzzles to be unsolvable. Oh, and there was a machine which blasted a horn into their ears at completely random intervals.
After this bout of torture, the group was then asked to taste another sample of artificial sweetener and rate how bitter and sweet this sample was compared to the first sample they took. The group rated it as being more bitter, and less sweet than the exact same stuff they ate before the scientists went about pissing them off.
Does that mean that, because the stressed-out brain wants you to eat something sweet, it makes you perceive foods as being less sweet so that you'll eat more of it? The scientists don't take it that far, though it is interesting to note that strenuous physical exercise does the opposite -- when physically exhausted, you're more likely to taste the sugar in whatever you eat or drink. So if after a long run you chug some Gatorade and suddenly feel like somebody has shot you in the mouth with a sugar cannon, that's why.
And on top of all of that, scientists have found different people taste foods differently based on, not just their mood, but their overall personality. Different chemicals in your food react to different chemicals in your brain, thus the foods you like aren't just personal preference, they say something about how your brain works. Depressed people can't taste sweetness as well, people with panic disorders don't taste bitterness as strongly as others.
So keep that in mind the next time you shove something in a friend's face and say, "OH MY GOD YOU HAVE GOT TO TRY THIS ITS SOOOOOOO GOOD" and after taking a bite they ask if you're high. It's not just personal preference, they are literally tasting it differently than you.
Once again, this is one that seems obvious at first. Of course it matters how food looks -- there are people who work as food stylists whose job it is to dress up food for ads and menu photos. But color can affect your taste buds in all sorts of unexpected ways.
For instance, it's been found that the color of the glass in which the drink is served has the ability to alter how the drink itself tastes. Thanks to our odd tendency to unconsciously associate fiery colors with heat, one study found that drinkers perceived drinks served in yellow and red containers as being hotter than those (same) drinks served within blue and green containers. Other studies have shown that the color of the liquid itself influencing how sweet, sour, or bitter you find it to taste, with green having the effect of making sweet drinks seem even sweeter, while yellow makes them seem less sweet. Take a sour drink and change the color to yellow or green, and it'll taste less sour to you.
It's all about expectations. Ever wonder why "hot" cinnamon candies are always red? A hot blue candy would just be... wrong. Which brings us to the weirdest experiment in this article, a famous 1970s study mentioned in the book Fast Food Nation.
The participants were placed in a room and asked to simply eat a meal consisting of steak, french fries, and peas, all of which the experimenters provided. To the untrained eye, the food was completely normal both color-wise and taste-wise, which should have aroused suspicion considering these people knew they were part of an experiment. We'd have expected the scientists to come out at the end and announce, "Congratulations, everything on your plate has touched my balls! For science!"
But that wasn't it. Unbeknownst to the poor men and women eating this meal, the lights in the room were equipped with filters that hid the fact that all of their food had been dyed the wrong color. When they turned on the normal lights, the test subjects saw that the steak was actually blue, the fries were green, and the peas were red. Luckily for the scientific method, the reaction from the participants was fairly hard to misinterpret: they suddenly became violently ill at the sight of what they'd just eaten.
Find more from Adam at Alert Level Stork! and in The Four Humors, a collection of short stories by the writers at Wordplague.
For more things outside your control, check out 6 Weird Things That Influence Bad Behavior More Than Laws and 6 Factors That Secretly Influence Who You Have Sex With.