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Your Choice In Utensils Can Change How Food Tastes

Jun 30, 2013
Originally published on July 5, 2013 11:45 am

Being "born with a silver spoon in your mouth" has long been known to have advantages. Apparently, eating off a silver spoon also has its perks — it seems to make your food taste better.

That's the word from a group of researchers who've been studying how cutlery, dishes and other inedible accoutrements to a meal can alter our perceptions of taste. Their latest work, published in the journal Flavour, looks at how spoons, knives and other utensils we put in our mouths can provide their own kind of "mental seasoning" for a meal.

"Some of my wine-drinking colleagues would have me believe that flavor is really out there on the bottle, in the glass or on the plate," says Charles Spence, a professor of experimental psychology at Oxford University. "But I think it is much more something that we ... understand better through looking at what's happening inside the brain, and not just the mouth of the person eating or drinking."

Alterations in taste perceptions aren't necessarily the result of the cutlery itself, he says, but of the mental associations we bring to a meal. "Silver spoons and other silver cutlery, I'm guessing, are more commonly associated with high-quality food in our prior eating experiences," Spence says.

In recent years, psychologists have found that the color and shape of plates and other dishes can have an impact on the eating experience. Studies have found, for example, that people tend to eat less when their dishes are in sharp color-contrast to their food, that the color of a mug can alter a drinker's perception of how sweet and aromatic hot cocoa is, and that drinks can seem more thirst-quenching when consumed from a glass with a "cold" color like blue.

So why study cutlery? For starters, there wasn't any real scientific literature on the topic, Spence tells Linda Wertheimer on Weekend Edition Sunday.

Or, as he put it to The Salt, cutlery is "one of the few things we stick in our mouth that others have stuck in their mouths. So it's a peculiar thing."

Among Spence's findings so far:

  • People will rate the very same yogurt 15 percent tastier and more expensive when sampled with a silver spoon rather than a plastic spoon or a lighter (by weight) option.
  • Combining a heavier bowl with a heavier spoon will tend to make yogurt taste better.
  • Plastic packaging or plate ware that's more rounded will tend to emphasize sweetness.
  • Angular plates tend to bring out the bitterness in food, which works well for dishes like dark chocolate or coffee-based desserts, Spence says.
  • People will rate cheeses as tasting saltier when eaten off a knife, compared to a toothpick, spoon or fork.
  • In general, foods tend to be perceived as more enjoyable when eaten off heavier plates and with heavier cutlery – perhaps because heft is equated with expense.

Such research isn't merely academic, Spence says. Food companies use these kinds of studies to inform how they package their products. And in a world where modernist chefs already pay lots of attention to how foods are arranged visually on the plate, cutlery, he suggests, presents a new frontier for fine dining.

Spence has already teamed up with some of the world's top modernist chefs, using their restaurants as real-world settings to test findings from the lab. Working with Ferran Adria, the culinary superstar behind Barcelona's now-shuttered El Bulli, Spence tells us, he learned that strawberry mousse tastes "10 percent sweeter and 15 percent more flavorful on a white plate than on a black plate."

And this summer, Spence says, he'll explore how ridged spoons impact the dining experience at The Fat Duck, the restaurant run by British celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal. A previous collaboration between the two resulted in The Sound of the Sea, in which diners eat oysters and other seafood while listening to an iPod playing the sounds of crashing waves. It's become a signature dish on Fat Duck's tasting menu.

"Maybe in a year or two," Spence tells The Salt, "we will have signature cutlery associated with this chef or that."

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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?


WERTHEIMER: Seriously?


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.

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