LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
Here's an unusual study. It's from the journal Flavour, which finds that food tastes differently, depending upon what cutlery you use. Is yogurt better on silver spoons than it is on plastic ones? Is cheese saltier speared with a fork rather than offered on a toothpick? Is any of this really happening in our mouths or is it all in our brains?
Dr. Charles Spence is a professor of experimental psychology at Somerville College at Oxford University. And he joins us from the BBC studios there.
First of all, I gather that you have concluded that putting a silver spoon in our mouths does make food taste better.
CHARLES SPENSE: It certainly does. We normally contrast that with a plastic spoon or perhaps even a spoon that looks like it's silver, but is really plastic instead. And when we do that sort of comparison - getting people to eat yogurts of different flavors - we find that people will rate one and the same yogurt as about 15, 16 percent tastier and more expensive when sampled with the silver spoon rather than the plastic or lighter spoon.
WERTHEIMER: Do you have any idea why?
SPENSE: I think that we have a few things going on. One, is that across many different sorts of categories - be it bottles of wine or lipsticks - the heavier is normally the better or at least the more expensive. So I think in our brains we have this general association that heavy things are good. And so, may be when we pick up heavier cutlery that can transfer some of the attributes to the thing that we're eating.
In addition, I can say it also has to be the case that there is nothing intrinsically good tasting about silver - it has no taste at all. But through our association through all our previous eating experiences, I guess our brains are keeping a tally of what we've eaten and what kind of coincided with it, in terms of what kind of place do sweet things come off. Silver spoons, I'm guessing are more commonly associated with higher quality food in our prior eating experiences. And hence, that might be part of the answer as well.
WERTHEIMER: So did your research determine the ideal...
WERTHEIMER: ...yogurt spoon?
SPENSE: In a way, I think it's hard to find an ideal solution in terms of crockery and cutlery. Maybe it's better to think of it in terms of being able to season your food through changing your spoon, say.
WERTHEIMER: OK, so what would a yogurt company do with this information?
SPENSE: Some of the effects that we see from the cutlery are in the range of 5 to 15 percent change in your rating or experience. And there, if you can say just by simply changing the color of the cutlery you provide, you can actually significantly enhance the taste or flavor; perhaps make things taste a little bit sweeter so that will give you the opportunity, in fact, to reduce the amount of sugar you're putting into the food.
There's a potential there at least for nudging people towards healthier food behaviors through these kinds of subtle psychological interventions.
WERTHEIMER: Now, as I understand it, you are the scientist who determined that eating food by the sea was somehow more interesting than eating inland.
WERTHEIMER: Do I have that right?
SPENSE: Close, that eating seafood while listening to the sounds of the sea might be almost as good as really being there; listening to the waves crashing on the beach and the seagulls squalling overhead.
WERTHEIMER: So that if I were served a nice piece of fish in a restaurant, and they also set down on the table a little tape recording of the ocean, I would like it better?
SPENSE: Absolutely seriously - tested hundreds of people. Before we did it, we thought we'd never have done this study 'cause it's obviously too silly. But we find that things always feel better, they taste better when you're on holiday or for us it's out by the Mediterranean with the sun on your back and staring at your loved one. And you buy some of that wine or sausage or cheese to bring it back home, and try and serve it to your friends on a kind of cold winter's evening, to show what good taste you have.
And it's nearly always a disappointment, and you would think that something happened in the cargo hold - was it too cold? I think it's nothing to do with the change in the physical food. It's all about the psychology that when we think we're tasting just the food on the plate or the wine in the glass - in fact all the time our brains are taking in cues about the temperature, the lighting, the background music, the smells and integrating all of that into what we think of as the taste of food.
WERTHEIMER: Dr. Spence, thank you very much.
SPENSE: A pleasure.
WERTHEIMER: Dr. Charles Spence is professor of Experimental Psychology at Oxford University. His research was published in the journal Flavour.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.