All five of our senses play a role in the perception of taste and flavors. Barry Smith, a professor at the University of London who co-directs the Center for the Study of the Senses, works with psychologists and neurologists to study how the brain perceives flavor.
Smith explains that our ability to taste flavors does not come solely from our tongues, and adds that even the sound of white noise on aircraft diminishes the tongue’s ability to detect and discriminate between flavors.
But besides our sense of hearing, our sense of smell also plays a vital role in the perception of taste. Try pinching your nose while eating.
The trigeminal nerve is responsible for sensation in the face, and allows us to detect spiciness in food — it causes a stinging feeling, for instance, when we eat wasabi.
Psychologists have recently determined that the color and shape of plates and other dishes can have an impact on the eating experience.
“Studies have found that people tend to eat less when their dishes are in sharp color-contrast to their food, that the color of a mug can alter a drinker’s perception of how sweet and aromatic hot cocoa is, and that drinks can seem more thirst-quenching when consumed from a glass with a ‘cold’ color like blue.”
NPR’s Maria Godoy recently reported on a group of researchers who’ve been studying how cutlery, dishes and other inedible accouterments to a meal can alter our perceptions of taste.
Their latest work, published in the journal Flavour, examines the way spoons, knives and other utensils influence the perception of flavors in a meal.
“Some of my wine-drinking colleagues would have me believe that flavor is really out there on the bottle, in the glass or on the plate,” says Charles Spence, a professor of experimental psychology at Oxford University.
“But I think it is much more something that we understand better through looking at what’s happening inside the brain, and not just the mouth of the person eating or drinking.”
Spence explains these variances in taste perceptions aren’t the result of the cutlery itself, but of the mental associations we bring to a meal. “Silver spoons and other silver cutlery, I’m guessing, are more commonly associated with high-quality food in our prior eating experiences,” Spence says.
* People will rate the very same yogurt 15 percent tastier and more expensive when sampled with a silver spoon rather than a plastic spoon or a lighter (by weight) option.
*Combining a heavier bowl with a heavier spoon will tend to make yogurt taste better.
* Plastic packaging or plate ware that’s more rounded will tend to emphasize sweetness.
* Angular plates tend to bring out the bitterness in food, which works well for dishes like dark chocolate or coffee-based desserts, Spence says.
* People will rate cheeses as tasting saltier when eaten off a knife, compared to a toothpick, spoon or fork.
Spence suggests these studies influence the way food companies package their products. “And in a world where modernist chefs already pay lots of attention to how foods are arranged visually on the plate, cutlery, he suggests, presents a new frontier for fine dining.”
Godoy says Spence has teamed up with some of the world’s top modernist chefs, using their restaurants to test findings from the lab.
Working with Ferran Adria, once the culinary genius behind Barcelona’s elBulli, Spence says he learned that strawberry mousse tastes “10 percent sweeter and 15 percent more flavorful on a white plate than on a black plate.”