How visuals, textures, and sounds change your food’s taste

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Why does coffee taste different from different cups, why does the shape of chocolate change its sweetness, why does music make beer likable? Here’s the psychology of food perception: how all your senses alter your taste and expectations by taking-in information from everything around you, including your cutlery, background sounds, colors, decor, food presentation, etc., and integrating it into a unified unique taste.

I am going to highlight some findings from my favorite body of scientific literature. Cross-modal perception. This area, when applied to food psychology, can give you a number of unorthodox food hacks.

Cross-modal perception is perceiving something around us with the integration of at least 2 of our senses. It is about how one sense affects the other.

In an earlier post, I described 10 sensory pathways that provide valuable information for us to perceive something. As I previously noted in that article, we don’t just perceive information as it comes in through our senses. There are filters that ignore noise, biases which highlight certain aspects of a sense, and there is the interaction between our senses which generates our perception.

We will strictly look at this sensory interaction for food and drinks – the cross-modal perception based on the taste sensation.

Specifically, this post highlights current experimental research results on what we know about the effect of all of our senses on our eating and drinking experience.



The psychology of food perception

Before we get to that, I want to introduce the idea of cross-modal perception with a little more detail. 

Cross-modal perception describes how we perceive something in the environment based on the combined information from at least 2 of our senses. Information from each sense affects the information from the other sense at a biological level and a psychological level. The interaction creates a dynamically new perception of something based on raw information from our senses. 

People can draw commonalities between different bits of information that they perceive and then compare them. Sometimes, we only feel the commonalities at a somewhat abstract level. Cross-modal perception enables us to draw parallels between information between different senses such as taste and sound.

For example, we can say a bright red dress is ‘loud’ or the sound of an instrument is ‘smooth’. Here loud is essentially a word we use that is based on information from the ears. Smooth is a word we learn based on touch.

In this post, we are concerned with just the cross-modal influence of our senses (smell, vision, audition, touch, etc.) on taste.

For example, how the shape of your glass affects the flavor of your coffee. This makes food psychology extremely fascinating!  I’ll dive right in.

Why does coffee taste different from different cups? The answer: our senses take in information like cup size, color, hotness… and integrate with taste and smell before we perceive the taste Click To Tweet

20 research examples of how non-taste sensory inputs alter your food and drink’s taste

Here are 20 examples of how some sensory aspects unrelated to the chemical taste of food and drinks affect our food experience (eating, drinking, savoring, pleasure, fine dining, expectations, etc.). These food hacks are more about the senses than cooking or cooking ingredients.

Cross-modal correspondence in taste: food psychology
Perception of food

Food shape: The shape of chocolates[1] significantly affect the expected sweetness, bitterness, and creaminess. Round chocolates are perceived to be sweeter and creamier than angular chocolates! However, after eating those chocolates, round chocolates seemed less sweet and less creamy than expected. And, angular chocolates seemed sweeter and creamier than expected.  

Food packaging: Packaging food[2] is partly a branding process which includes choosing the right sounds, designs, fonts, etc. The ‘sweetness’ of the food can be better expressed using names that have a soft round sound, fonts that are curvy, low-pitched sounds, and flowy shapes in the design. The ‘sourness’ of the food can be better expressed using names that have a sharp tone to them, fonts that are edgy & angular, high-pitched sounds, and angular shapes in the design.

Drink color: The color of drinks[3] can deferentially affect how sweet, salty, or bitter they are. Different food colors change the taste and smell of drinks in unique ways. For example, the dark red color makes a strawberry drink taste sweeter than a light red colored version of the same drink; whereas, a light green colored variant is perceived to be sweeter than a dark green variant.

Color and Odour: Researchers think that the concept of sweetness[4] may be tied to smell & aroma more than the color of the drink. Sounds fairly obvious. However, the interesting finding is that younger children and older children perceive sweetness differently; probably because their brains take in aroma-related information differently.

Music, branding, and willingness to pay: In tasting a UK porter-based craft beer[5], people liked the beer more with familiar music than with silence. People were also willing to pay more for that beer when it had a branding label on it and was presented with music than without the label and music.

Cultural difference and drink colors: When people from China and U.S.A.[6] were shown photos of different colored drinks in different types of glasses (wine glass, plastic cup, water glass, etc), they perceived the imagined taste of the drink to be different for the glass type and color combination. Furthermore, people from China and America judged the flavor of red and blue drinks in different ways.

Plate shape for desserts: Serving desserts on a round plate[7] makes people feel that their dessert items are sweeter than they are. Serving them in squarish and angular plates makes people feel that they are, comparatively, less sweet. 

Glass shape and drink taste: Rounder drinking glasses[8] (receptacles) or glasses with a design that is flowy or curvy tend to make the drink in it taste sweeter or fruitier. Angular glasses or glasses designed to have edges tend to make the drink appear less sweet or even bitter.

Glass shape and beer: The shape of the beer mug[9] affects the perception of its strength/intensity and its fruitiness. Glasses/Mugs with a side curvature made the beer seem fruitier and more intense as compared with glasses/mugs with no curvature.

Plate color: Light-colored plates[10] tend to change the expected taste of dessert items to be on the sweeter side. Dark-colored plates tend to change it toward the bitter side.

Cultural difference in shape and taste: People from China and India[11] feel that food items are sweeter than they are if there are circular shapes in food presentation and familiar words in the environment.

Related: How caffeine alters mood and cognition

The shape of Coffee mugs: People find coffee[12] more aromatic if it is served in a narrow-diameter mug. They also expected it to be more intense and bitter if it is served in a short mug; whereas, they expected it to be sweeter if it is served in a mug with a large diameter. People were also willing to spend more money on taller and wider mugs. This perception of people is consistent across countries – China, the U.K., and Colombia.

Another study[13] reports a change in taste intensity based on the color of the mug. In this experiment, cafe latte in a white mug was rated as more intense than the same coffee in a transparent mug. A possible mechanism would be that white mugs amplify the ‘brownness’ of the coffee which could influence the intensity.

Food psychology: Coffee tastes different from different mugs

Photo by rawpixel.com[14] from Pexels[15]

Salivation and music: Although people can associate particular types of music with food[16], music that seems ‘sour’ failed to make people salivate. Instead, obviously, a video of a person eating a lemon made them salivate as expected. This study only looks at sourness. I wonder about other kinds of music and sounds.

Serving beer: During festivals, beer is often poured into a plastic cup. So is the case during house parties. People rate[17]beer[18] as tastier if it came from a bottle instead of a can. It may not be clear what exactly it is on the bottle that affects the taste. Perhaps it’s the clarity of the glass, the appearance of cold which gets linked to freshness, perhaps the popping sound upon opening the beer that induces arousal?

Glass shape and Coca-Cola: People find coca-cola[19] intense and tastier if it is served in a regular Coca-cola glass. The same coca-cola was perceived to be not as satisfying when served in a plastic bottle or a water cup. 

Music and spiciness: People can associate music with taste[20]. Certain musical aspects match specific tastes such as spiciness. I’ll reiterate, Cross-modal perception enables us to draw parallels between information coming from different senses such as taste and sound. Listening to spicy music can lead to a higher expectation of food spiciness but people don’t actually taste it to be spicier.

Sound and beer: People tend to associate lower notes[21](frequencies) with bitter beer and higher tones with sweet beer. This finding can assist in choosing the right music to use to make beer more enjoyable based on people’s preferences.

Music and chocolate: Based on an initial music and taste matching[22] activity, music was made to sound either ‘creamy’ or ‘rough’. Listening to the creamy music enhanced the creaminess and sweetness of chocolates as compared with the taste of the same chocolate while listening to the rough music. However, the music did not change the enjoyment of having those chocolates.

Food expectations: Experts can design food experiences[23] by creating a food-color match. Then they can choose to design the experience by sticking to the color-food association or going against it. In both these cases, people tend to either like the food more or be surprised by it. Matching the sensory experience to the taste of the food strategically induces ‘likeability’ or ‘surprise’.

Motion in food: Fatty food that appears to have motion[24] in it such as the dripping of cheese from a pizza or the pouring of hot chocolate appears to be more attractive and emotionally arousing. There is motion behind emotion – says Dr. Charles Spence. (most of the research findings I’ve reported here are based on his work).

There you go. 20 cool ways in which the experience of tasting food and drinks changes based on some other sensory aspects involved. This is cross-modal perception around taste and smell at its finest! 

Although these insights seem like too many, they are just the tip of the iceberg. There is so much more to this. Cross-modal examples show how unique food experiences can get.

I haven’t explored many sensory attributes such as temperature, room lighting, rock music, table size, etc. Perhaps I’ll do a part 2 of this article later. 

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Recap

Many different sensory aspects of food such as color, smell, size, background music, cutlery, containers, etc. affect the expected and actual taste of food and drinks. We have seen many ways in which our eyes, ears, nose, and touch send information to the brain that changes our ‘tasting’ experience. These effects can be applied in the real world to design a food experience.

General trends in food-related cross-modal perception: 

  1. Sounds of a certain kind can influence the taste expectations 
  2. Angular shapes make the taste skew in the bitter direction 
  3. Round shapes make the taste skew in the sweet direction 
  4. Size matters. Coffee tastes different from differently-sized glasses 
  5. People from around the world exhibit the effect of different senses influencing taste

Disclaimer: I’ve reported findings that have a fairly consistent body of research backing. It is outside the scope of this article to include all details of the experiments conducted. None of this research (apart from this compilation) is my work. Please follow the links to find out who conducted these experiments. 

References

Lavin, J., & Lawless, H. (1998). Effects of color and odor on judgments of sweetness among children and adults. Food Quality And Preference9(4), 283-289. doi: 10.1016/s0950-3293(98)00009-3

Spence, C., Levitan, C., Shankar, M., & Zampini, M. (2010). Does Food Color Influence Taste and Flavor Perception in Humans?. Chemosensory Perception3(1), 68-84. doi: 10.1007/s12078-010-9067-z

Wan, X., Velasco, C., Michel, C., Mu, B., Woods, A., & Spence, C. (2014). Does the type of receptacle influence the crossmodal association between colour and flavour? A cross-cultural comparison. Flavour3(1). doi: 10.1186/2044-7248-3-3

Velasco, C., Salgado-Montejo, A., Marmolejo-Ramos, F., & Spence, C. (2014). Predictive packaging design: Tasting shapes, typefaces, names, and sounds. Food Quality And Preference34, 88-95. doi: 10.1016/j.foodqual.2013.12.005

Van Doorn, G., Wuillemin, D., & Spence, C. (2014). Does the colour of the mug influence the taste of the coffee?. Flavour3(1). doi: 10.1186/2044-7248-3-10

Reinoso Carvalho, F., Velasco, C., van Ee, R., Leboeuf, Y., & Spence, C. (2016). Music Influences Hedonic and Taste Ratings in Beer. Frontiers In Psychology7. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00636

Liang, P., Biswas, P., Vinnakota, S., Fu, L., Chen, M., & Quan, Y. et al. (2016). Invariant effect of vision on taste across two Asian cultures: India and China. Journal Of Sensory Studies31(5), 416-422. doi: 10.1111/joss.12225

Barnett, A., Velasco, C., & Spence, C. (2016). Bottled vs. Canned Beer: Do They Really Taste Different?. doi: 10.20944/preprints201608.0106.v1

Velasco, C., Michel, C., Youssef, J., Gamez, X., Cheok, A., & Spence, C. (2016). Colour–taste correspondences: Designing food experiences to meet expectations or to surprise. International Journal Of Food Design1(2), 83-102. doi: 10.1386/ijfd.1.2.83_1

Reinoso Carvalho, F., Wang, Q., de Causmaecker, B., Steenhaut, K., van Ee, R., & Spence, C. (2016). Tune That Beer! Listening for the Pitch of Beer. Beverages2(4), 31. doi: 10.3390/beverages2040031

De balanzo, C. (2016). Food adverts stimulates your senses. Retrieved from https://www.research-live.com/article/opinion/how-food-advertising-best-stimulates-the-senses/id/5012022

Wang, Q., Reinoso Carvalho, F., Persoone, D., & Spence, C. (2017). Assessing the effect of shape on the evaluation of expected and actual chocolate flavourFlavour6(1). doi: 10.1186/s13411-017-0052-1

Wang, Q., Knoeferle, K., & Spence, C. (2017). Music to Make Your Mouth Water? Assessing the Potential Influence of Sour Music on Salivation. Frontiers In Psychology8. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00638

Van Doorn, G., Woods, A., Levitan, C., Wan, X., Velasco, C., Bernal-Torres, C., & Spence, C. (2017). Does the shape of a cup influence coffee taste expectations? A cross-cultural, online study. Food Quality And Preference56, 201-211. doi: 10.1016/j.foodqual.2016.10.013

Spence, C., & Van Doorn, G. (2017). Does the Shape of the Drinking Receptacle Influence Taste/Flavour Perception? A Review. Beverages3(4), 33. doi: 10.3390/beverages3030033

Spence, C., & Van Doorn, G. (2017). Does the Shape of the Drinking Receptacle Influence Taste/Flavour Perception? A Review. Beverages3(4), 33. doi: 10.3390/beverages3030033

Mirabito, A., Oliphant, M., Van Doorn, G., Watson, S., & Spence, C. (2017). Glass shape influences the flavour of beerFood Quality And Preference62, 257-261. doi: 10.1016/j.foodqual.2017.05.009

Wang, Q., Keller, S., & Spence, C. (2017). Sounds spicy: Enhancing the evaluation of piquancy by means of a customised crossmodally congruent soundtrack. Food Quality And Preference58, 1-9. doi: 10.1016/j.foodqual.2016.12.014

Reinoso Carvalho, F., Wang, Q., van Ee, R., Persoone, D., & Spence, C. (2017). “Smooth operator”: Music modulates the perceived creaminess, sweetness, and bitterness of chocolateAppetite108, 383-390. doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2016.10.026

Cavazzana, A., Larsson, M., Hoffmann, E., Hummel, T., & Haehner, A. (2017). The vessel’s shape influences the smell and taste of cola. Food Quality And Preference59, 8-13. doi: 10.1016/j.foodqual.2017.01.014

Chen, Y., Woods, A., & Spence, C. (2018). Sensation transference from plateware to food: The sounds and tastes of plates. International Journal Of Food Design3(1), 41-62. doi: 10.1386/ijfd.3.1.41_1

P.S. I’ve already discussed the implications and the framework for a psychological experiment that shows humans can abstract in an earlier post. That experiment demonstrates the very essence of cross-modal perception. I’ve also discussed the theoretical concepts governing it. I’m pretty sure you’ll like reading that!

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Sources

[1]: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/313482877_Assessing_the_effect_of_shape_on_the_evaluation_of_expected_and_actual_chocolate_flavour
[2]: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/260155782_Predictive_packaging_design_Tasting_shapes_typefaces_names_and_sounds
[3]: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/225762625_Does_Food_Color_Influence_Taste_and_Flavor_Perception_in_Humans
[4]: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/223559542_Effects_of_color_and_odor_on_judgments_of_sweetness_among_children_and_adults
[5]: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/301937283_Music_Influences_Hedonic_and_Taste_Ratings_in_Beer
[6]: https://flavourjournal.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/2044-7248-3-3
[7]: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/318251950_Does_the_Shape_of_the_Drinking_Receptacle_Influence_TasteFlavour_Perception_A_Review
[8]: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/318251950_Does_the_Shape_of_the_Drinking_Receptacle_Influence_TasteFlavour_Perception_A_Review
[9]: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/317112759_Glass_shape_influences_the_flavour_of_beer
[10]: https://www.psy.ox.ac.uk/publications/693993
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[12]: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/309625706_Does_the_shape_of_a_cup_influence_coffee_taste_expectations_A_cross-cultural_online_study
[13]: https://flavourjournal.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/2044-7248-3-10
[14]: https://www.pexels.com/@rawpixel?utm_content=attributionCopyText&utm_medium=referral&utm_source=pexels
[15]: https://www.pexels.com/photo/top-view-photo-of-ceramic-mugs-filled-with-coffees-1415555/?utm_content=attributionCopyText&utm_medium=referral&utm_source=pexels
[16]: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/316489412_Music_to_Make_Your_Mouth_Water_Assessing_the_Potential_Influence_of_Sour_Music_on_Salivation
[17]: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/306043063_Bottled_vs_Canned_Beer_Do_They_Really_Taste_Different
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[19]: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/313283747_The_vessel%27s_shape_influences_the_smell_and_taste_of_Cola
[20]: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/312333259_Sounds_spicy_Enhancing_the_evaluation_of_piquancy_by_means_of_a_customised_crossmodally_congruent_soundtrack
[21]: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/310465187_Tune_That_Beer_Listening_for_the_Pitch_of_Beer
[22]: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/309393803_Smooth_operator_Music_modulates_the_perceived_creaminess_sweetness_and_bitterness_of_chocolate
[23]: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/308801249_Colour-taste_correspondences_Designing_food_experiences_to_meet_expectations_or_to_surprise
[24]: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/317050304_How_food_advertising_best_stimulates_the_senses
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2 thoughts on “How visuals, textures, and sounds change your food’s taste”

  1. This perception of people is consistent across countries – China, U.K., and Columbia. Wich Columbia would that be? .Republic of Colombia or British Columbia?

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