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Why Singing Makes Cake Taste Better, and Other Food Rituals

Food rituals

Think about your favorite foods and how you eat them. Chances are you practice food rituals and don’t even realize it, but if you stopped you might discover something about how your food tastes. A new study reveals why singing makes cake taste better and how other ceremonial habits can affect your eating experiences.

What are some of your food rituals?

I have several friends who do not like different foods on their plate to touch and so they segregate the individual items before they begin eating. One family member always eats the crust off her sandwich first before attacking the rest of it, while another eats yogurt with only one type of spoon and yet another "has to" drink her coffee from her favorite mug.

If these sound a little crazy, pay attention to your eating habits; or better yet, ask a family member or good friend to comment on them. The purpose of this exercise is not to make fun of your habits, but to point out, as a new study does, that food rituals can change your perception of food.

According to Kathleen Vohs of the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota, she and her colleagues found there is significant power in the rituals people perform around their food. That includes the ritual of singing “Happy Birthday” around a cake ablaze with lighted candles, making a big fuss when your grandmother’s pumpkin pie is presented to the table on Thanksgiving, or always having pasta on Wednesday nights at home.

In a series of four studies, Vohs and her team observed how food rituals can impact a person’s perception and consumption of different foods. Here is a brief explanation of the first two experiments:

  • Participants broke a wrapped chocolate bar in half, unwrapped half of the bar, ate it, then unwrapped the other half and ate it
  • Other participants were asked to relax and then eat the chocolate bar anyway they wanted

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The team found that individuals who performed the food ritual rated the chocolate higher, enjoyed it more, and were more willing to pay extra for the candy than the individuals in the other group. When the scientists conducted a second experiment, the findings reinforced their original findings, suggesting that repeated, fixed behaviors appear to have an impact on a person’s perception of food, and that the anticipation of eating something following a food ritual improved subjective taste.

In an additional two experiments, the scientists observed that when people watched others methodically prepare a food item, the food did not taste any better. They concluded that people needed to be personally involved in the ritual for the food to taste better.

Why is any of this research important? Vohs noted that “we are thinking of getting patients to perform rituals before surgery and then measuring their pain post-operatively and how fast they heal.” Beyond this use, perhaps researchers could use the information to find ways to boost fruit and vegetable consumption among children and adults or help individuals who have eating disorders or other food issues better enjoy their eating experiences.

So the next time you break a piece of bread and butter only one half at a time, cut an apple into perfect quarters before eating it, or sing “Happy Birthday” in front of a chocolate cake, you are performing food rituals that likely make the food and the entire experience more pleasurable.

Also read: Your Favorite Color May Make Food Taste Saltier

Vohs K et al. Rituals enhance consumption. Psychological Science 2013 July 17; online before print

Image: Pixabay