Space & Innovation

10 Food Tricks That Fool Our Perception

People can be easily fooled by food, as these 10 tricks show.

The perception of flavor is the most multisensory of our everyday experiences, according to a new paper in the journal Cell that shows how easily our palates can be fooled. In many cases, the trickery is explained by hard-wired or learned flavor expectations versus the actual eating experience. "The latest research by psychologists and cognitive neuroscientists increasingly reveals the complex multi-sensory interactions that give rise to the flavor experiences we all know and love, demonstrating how they rely on the integration of cues from all of the human senses," author Charles Spence of the University of Oxford's Department of Experimental Psychology wrote. One example is to serve guests hot chocolate out of an orange mug. A study led by Betina Piqueras-Fiszman of the Polytechnic University of Valencia found that this color of mug or cup fools drinkers into thinking they are drinking a very intense, richly flavored chocolate. While she and her team are not sure why, it likely has to do with the color contrast between orange and dark brown, and how that visual information influences our expectations of flavor. Major chocolate bar companies have experienced something similar after changing the color of their packaging. Many customers subsequently complained, saying that the "new" recipe for the product was terrible. In fact, the companies hadn't changed the recipe at all, only the packaging color.

Video: Why Can't These Animals Taste Sweets?

Both color and shapes can influence how we perceive food. Spanish chef Ferran Adria demonstrated this by serving the same frozen strawberry dessert on different shaped plates in different colors. Consumers consistently rated the dessert as 10 percent sweeter when it was served on a round, white plate. Conversely, dark and angular plates diminished the diners' ability to taste sweetness. Somehow, the color contrast and the round shape serve as visual cues for sweetness. As for why, researchers aren't sure. It could either be hard-wired into us, from our distant ancestors' days of searching for foods in the wild, or it could be more of a learned association.

Photos: 3D-Printed Foods Made to Eat

Regularly arranged food, such as all in a row or in a basic mound, is rated as being less valuable than dishes arranged a/la a Kandinsky painting with a lot of complex-looking design. French-Colombian chef Charles Michel recently demonstrated this when he served customers the exact same set of salad ingredients. The only difference was that one set was served as a regular tossed salad, while the other was presented like a Kandinsky painting, with a lot of visual complexity. Michel found that customers were willing to pay significantly more for the dish if it was served in this complex way. Somewhere along the line, humans learned to equate complex presentations with more valuable food. Other chefs are paying attention to such mind matters, which is one reason why more modernistic-looking dishes are featured at pricey restaurants now.

Several studies have determined that if a cherry-flavored drink is colored green, consumers will think that it's a lime drink. If the drink is colored orange, they will perceive it as having an orange taste. Spence, however, notes that there is a small percentage of the population known as "supertasters." These are people who were born with extremely sensitive palates. This can be a problem, as they can be too sensitive to bitter flavors in certain healthy vegetables, like broccoli. They tend to ace food tests, though, and sometimes can correctly identify flavors in drinks, even if the they've been artificially colored the "wrong" hue.

Video: Why People Taste Things Differently

Even people who think they know a lot about wine have been fooled into believing they are drinking an actual red grape wine when, in fact, it was just a white wine that had been colored red. More than 50 students enrolled in a university wine degree course in Bordeaux, France, fell for such trickery. Spence said this shows how visual stimuli dominate our senses of smell and taste, adding that "it is also consistent with other studies showing that 'experts' are no less susceptible to such cross modal effects than are regular consumers."

Video: What Ancient Wine Tasted Like

The new paper mentions that auditory cues play an important role in the perception of food. As for color, these cues also might trump other senses, such as touch. Research has determined that just hearing a crunch noise makes diners think that food, like a potato chip or apple slice, is fresh even when the food is stale. This might have to do with timing as well. While the noise information can quickly travel to the brain, it likely takes a bit longer for the tongue and taste buds to send over their information about qualities detected in the food.

Taste Maker: Better Eating Through Technology

Spence said that "it is important to note that ambient lighting, background music, and background noise have all been shown to influence taste and flavor perception." He described one experiment where nearly 3000 people were given a red wine to taste from a black glass, so that they could not discern the drink's actual color. "The wine was liked significantly more, and it was rated as tasting significantly fruitier when the participants found themselves in an environment with red ambient lighting and putatively sweet background music than when the lighting was turned to green and 'sour' music was played instead." In this case, the lighting matched and enhanced their flavor expectations, while the "sweet"- sounding music really did make people think they tasted a fruitier wine.

A Journal of Consumer Research study found that consumers believe foods that are hard to chew and have rough textures are healthier than those that are softer, yet made from the exact same ingredients. This is one reason why certain energy bars, granola bars, cereals and more might be full of calories and unhealthy ingredients, yet consumers still think of them as being healthy. An interesting related side note is that if a food is labeled as being "healthy," consumers think it tastes worse. This is likely a learned association, stemming from years when tasty and healthy options were not as prevalent in the marketplace. It could also be that we enjoy moments of rebellion against what is thought to be healthy or not. There can be a decadent pleasure, for example, in eating a rich dessert.

Age is yet another factor that contributes to how humans experience food. Spence explained, "Children seem to enjoy artificially brightly colored and miscolored foods more than their parents. One example is the green-colored ketchup that was successfully launched into the marketplace a little over a decade ago." Researchers again are not certain why this happens, but it could be that experience with age lessens our need to rely on such strong color cues. Gravitating to bright colors could be hard-wired into us, from the days when our primate ancestors foraged for colorful fruits set against darker leaf backdrops.

Ice Cream Changes Color When Licked

"Mind over matter" often holds true. For example, if you cut yourself and think about the injury, it will tend to hurt more. Similarly, if you think about salt while eating food, it will tend to taste saltier, studies have shown. As Spence said, "Even reading the word salt, for example, has been shown to activate many of the same areas as when a salty taste is actually experienced in the mouth."

Video: Salt Isn't Really That Bad For You