Taste beyond the basic senses: the role of expectations and cues in the environment
The Wikipedia page about taste discusses the basic senses like bitter, sweet and sourness and how these influence the sensation of food in the mouth. Fine with me, but don’t go entirely on the Wikipedia story, because you would miss out on many more fascinating aspects of taste. Taste is as much about the basic senses as it is about the expectations one has and whether or not these are confirmed. Expectations shape experiences. As this is true for almost all life events, it definitively plays a huge role in taste experiences.
To illustrate this, researchers Martin Yeomans and colleagues presented a group of consumers a smooth, non-sweet peach-coloured smoked-salmon ice-cream. Imagine how that looks like. Then they told about half of the group that it was ‘ice-cream’ and the other half were told it was a ‘frozen savoury mousse’. Not surprisingly, the first group rated their ice cream as disgusting and inedible. The ‘mousse’ group, however, found it quite okay and some even enjoyed it. This study shows that when there is a big‘negative’ contrast between what you expect and what you actually get, disappointment follows.
This finding holds true as well for the promotion of food, as found in a recent study I conducted with Brian Wansink and Mitsuru Shimizu during my stay at the Food and Brand lab of Cornell University. In this study, we randomly assigned 68 college students to a supposed advertising study in which they had to watch a series of fast food and restaurant commercials or a series of commercials for products like car insurance and electronics. As the study happened to fall over lunch, participants got a free lunch as an incentive. Following commercials viewing, participants served themselves the meal and we secretly measured the amount of food they ate. The participants also filled out a questionnaire about how they rated and enjoyed the food. This is what we found: those who watched the food commercials felt hungrier but did not eat more than the other group. Watching food and restaurant commercials did, however, led to lower ratings of liking and enjoyment of the meal. Apparently, these participants were somewhat disillusioned of our ordinary pasta meal with the ‘I’m loving it’ song of the McDonalds ad still in their mind.
This clearly shows that we taste what we expect to taste. Usually, the difference between what we expect and what we get is not that extreme as in the examples above. For small differences, most consumers try to explain away these conflicting feelings or change their perception of the food they ate. In 1950s, Leon Festinger introduced the term ‘cognitive dissonance’ for this phenomenon. Basically, if we think that a food is going to taste good, we look for positive qualities that confirm that belief and justify our choice.
Noteworthy as well are the positive halo effects which refer to consumers’ tendency to think that when a food possesses one desirable feature, the food is automatically assumed to have more desirable features as well. A specific ingredient claim (‘80% less fat’) or a suggestive menu label (‘Grandmothers apple pie’) can provide strong cues that bias taste evaluation. In his book Mindless Eating, Brian Wansink vividly explains a variety of research findings of such biases. For example, consumers liked ‘Belgian Black Forest Double Chocolate Cake’ better than ‘Chocolate Cake’, even if they are the same, old cake. Another finding was that consumer evaluated brownies on China plates as excellent, while identical brownies presented on paper plates were good and the same ones handed out on napkins are only ok.
Do McDonalds fruit wall posters enhance the taste and health experience of a milkshake?
Consumers often think that ‘tasty’ equals ‘unhealthy’. Indicating foods as healthy reduces consumers’ taste expectations and taste experience. In other words, if we are really enjoying it, it must be bad for us. This is the persistent 'unhealthy=untasty' intuition that consumers use. So, promoting the healthiness of a food may ironically decrease its attractiveness in terms of taste. However, it does not mean that consumers will restrain from eating it. In contrast: several studies have shown that putting a healthy label on a food gives a ‘license to sin’. For example, labeling snacks as ‘low fat’ increases food intake during a single consumption occasion by up to 50%. Unluckily, in the study this was particularly the case for overweight people. This is because labeling food as ‘healthy’ or ‘low fat’ makes consumers underestimate the calories and gives them a reason to reward themselves by overeating or indulging in other foods. This effect is called a health halo and consumers are generally unaware that claims such as ‘healthy’, ‘natural’, and even ‘organic’ serve as a green light to go ahead and indulge.
All things considered, taste expectations are strongly influenced by cues in our purchase and eating environment.