Science Society

The Psychology of Food Perception

Cross-modal perception enables us to draw parallels between information from different senses such as taste and sound.
By Aditya Shukla

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Today, I am going to highlight some findings from my favourite body of science literature: Cross-modal perception.

This post looks at how our senses affect and change the perception of food and drinks.

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 this article, I’ll cover 15 ways in which some sensory aspect affects our food experiences – eating, drinking, savouring, fine dining, etc.

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

It basically means that we perceive something in the environment based on the combined information from a lot of our senses. Information from each of these senses affects the information from the other sense at a biological level and a psychological level. Thus, we get a well-integrated 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 from 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.

Here, we are concerned with just the influence of our other senses (smell, vision, audition, touch, etc.) on taste.

For example, how the shape of your glass affects the flavour of your coffee. This makes food psychology extremely fascinating. I’ll dive right in; Here are some insights about the psychology of food and taste:

1. Food shape: The shape of chocolates significantly affects 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.

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

3. Music, branding, and willingness to pay: In tasting a UK porter based craft beer, 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.


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Related: Some Like It Hot by Mollika Maiti

4. Cultural difference and drink colours: When people from China and U.S.A. were shown photos of different coloured 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 colour combination. Furthermore, people from China and America judged the flavour of red and blue drinks in different ways.

5. Plate shape for desserts: Serving desserts in a round plate 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.

6. Glass shape and drink taste: Rounder drinking glasses (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.

7. Glass shape and beer: The shape of the beer mug 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.

8. Plate colour: Light coloured plates tend to change the expected taste of dessert-items to be on the sweeter side. Dark coloured plates tend to change it toward the bitter side.

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

10. The shape of coffee mugs: People find a coffee 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, U.K., and Columbia.

11. Serving beer: During festivals, beer is often poured into a plastic cup. So is the case during house parties. People rate beer 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 the clarity of glass, the appearance of cold which gets linked to freshness, perhaps the popping sound upon opening the beer?

12. Glass shape and Coca-Cola: People find coca-cola 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.


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Related: Aamsutra – The Right To Bare Aams by Ankur Borwankar

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

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

15. Motion in food: Fatty food that appears to have motion in it such as 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 have contains the direct influence of his work or his work itself).

There you go. 15 ways in which the experience of tasting food and drinks changes based on some other sensory aspects involved. And these are just the tip of the iceberg. There is so much more to this.

I haven’t explored many sensory attributes such as temperature, room lighting, rock music, table size, etc.

To sum it all up:

Many different sensory aspects of food such as colour, smell, size, background music, cutlery, containers, etc. affect the expected and actual taste of foods. We have seen many ways in which our eyes, ears, nose, and touch give information to the brain that changes our ‘tasting’ experience.

General trends we’ve spotted:

  • Sounds of a certain kind can influence the taste expectations.
  • Angular shapes make the taste skew in the bitter direction.
  • Round shapes make the taste skew in the sweet direction.
  • Size matters. Coffee tastes different from differently sized glasses.
  • 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 them up. 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.

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The author, Aditya Shukla, is a learning scientist, psychologist and entrepreneur. He is a founder of The OWL, an organisation working on optimising the interaction of information and the brain.
A version of this article first appeared on his personal site.



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