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Can people really 'see' the taste of food?

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Does this look like it would taste good? Study shows we 'see' food taste.

Do you think you can tell how food will taste just by looking at it? Apparently, there is some validity to the notion that some people ‘see’ the flavor of food before they smell or taste it. Understanding that it really happens and why could have implications for finding ways to get people to eat healthier.

Why people develop certain food tastes, why kids refuse some vegetables or why some people are picky eaters really has not been well explained.

Most people are conditioned to savor the sight and smell of food.

Other senses besides taste and smell determine food tastes

Researcher Terry E. Acree, Ph.D reports at the National Meeting of the American Chemical Society said in a press release, “Years ago, taste was a table with two legs—taste and odor.”

But now researchers know other senses come into play.

Acree cites an experiment where one group of study participants smelled sweet foods and another meats and fish. Afterwards the group that sniffed foods like strawberries and caramel reported plain water tasted sweet.

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He also points out how the eyes can deceive us when it comes to perceiving flavors. An example is how the taste of wine can change if we look at it first, versus smelling and tasting the beverage.

Adding a flavorless food coloring to a glass of Sauvignon Blanc alters the taste because of the visual change.

But the sight of food isn't dominant when it comes to appeal, Acree says; evidenced by the fact that people eat and really like the taste of food like chili or sausage and stews that look unappetizing.

What it could boil down to is memory, he says. If we have a strong positive emotion associated with a certain food, the way it looks can trump other senses. Another factor is that people like to experience new things, which can also override shunning food that look unappealing.

Understanding that people perceive how something tastes based on how it looks or smells could ultimately help with developing foods that are healthy and appeal to a larger number of people – including children who may indeed be the ‘pickiest’ of eaters.

An example that comes to mind is fruity drinks that are vegetables in disguise. The trick to eating healthier may be disguising the appearance of food to encourage better nutrition for finicky eaters. Imagine a bowl of beets that looks like chocolate. Do you think it might work?

April 11, 2013

Image credit:
Wikimedia Commons