Tableware and Taste

Stephen DeAngelis

June 28, 2013

Our sense of taste is an interesting topic. In other posts on the subject, I’ve noted that other senses (especially smell and sight) play a role in how we judge the taste of foods. “To make your yogurt seem more decadent,” writes, Emily Sohn, “eat it from a plastic spoon.” At least that is what a new study suggests, “which found that the color, weight and shape of utensils influences our experience of the food we eat with them.” [“Utensil Color, Shape, Size Affect Food Flavor,” Discovery, 25 June 2013] Perhaps being born with a silver spoon in one’s mouth isn’t so desirable after all. Sohn continues:

“The findings add to plenty of other evidence that the taste of food varies depending on the accessories we use to eat it. When people drink from a glass that has a color perceived as ‘cool,’ for example, they find the beverage more thirst-quenching. And food eaten out of a heavier bowl seems like a larger portion. To see what kind of influence utensils might have on food experiences, researchers from the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom conducted a series of experiments. They added hidden weights to some plastic spoons, for example, and asked people to rate the sweetness, density and expensiveness of yogurt. They also played around with the color and shape of cutlery. People perceived yogurt as denser and more expensive when eaten with lighter spoons, the researchers report today in the journal Flavour, probably because those spoons matched their expectations. But yogurt tasted with that spoon was also rated as less sweet than when eaten with heavier or larger spoons.When using a blue spoon, people thought pink yogurt tasted saltier than white yogurt, possibly because salty snack foods in the U.K. often come in blue packages with white lettering — leading to unrealized salty expectations from the white yogurt. And people thought yogurt tasted sweeter when they ate it with a white spoon than with a black one.”

Writing about the results of the same study, an article by Agence France-Presse, stresses the point that beyond how tableware can affect the taste of food, it could have serious health consequences as well. [“Tableware color influences food flavor – study,” Rappler, 26 June 2013] It explains:

“British hospitals use red trays in a program to combat malnutrition, but may have chosen the worst possible color, according to a study linking the tinge of tableware to food enjoyment. … ‘Red could … be used to serve food to people who need to reduce their food intake, but should certainly not be used for those who are underweight,’ the team wrote in the journal Flavour. British hospitals use red trays to make it easier for nurses to identify people who need help eating. ‘Red appears to be the worst possible tray color … for those individuals who are being encouraged to eat more,’ the researchers warned.”

If true, the study could prompt a whole new line of dieting dishware for tableware manufacturers. Sohn reports that study another experiment with cheese. She writes:

“In a final experiment with different types of cheese, the researchers found that people rated cheese as saltier when they sampled it with a knife instead of a fork, spoon or toothpick. This may have been because eating with a knife is an unusual behavior, the researchers speculated, or because it reminded people of using a knife to try samples in a cheese shop, where cheeses tend to be more aged and therefore saltier.”

It’s clear that we have a lot left to learn about our sense of taste and flavor preferences. The Oxford researchers obviously came up with more questions than they did answers. Not knowing how the study was conducted, it would be interesting to see if the results remained true if the experiments were conducted using participants with sensory handicaps (e.g, blind or deaf volunteers). Sohn asserts, “The findings add yet more evidence that subtle details about way we eat influence how we experience the textures and flavors of our food. The results may also lead to new strategies for more or less healthful eating.” I’m not sure why anyone would want to develop a strategy for less healthful eating, but you never know. In a press release that accompanied publication of the study, co-author of the report, Vanessa Harrar, stated:

“How we experience food is a multisensory experience involving taste, feel of the food in our mouths, aroma, and the feasting of our eyes. Even before we put food into our mouths our brains have made a judgment about it, which affects our overall experience. Subtly changing eating implements and tableware can affect how pleasurable, or filling, food appears. So, when serving a dish, one should keep in mind that the color of the food appears different depending on the background on which it is presented (plate or cutlery) and, therefore, tastes different.”

I’ll discuss more about how senses affect our taste in future posts.