May 26, 2018
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Taste perception more complicated than just what is in our mouth

By Georgia Clark-Albert, Special to the BDN

Corporations spend billions of dollars each year on food advertising. For example, in 2007 Kraft Foods, PepsiCo and McDonald’s each spent more than $1 billion in advertising. A study in the Journal of Consumer Research suggests that those advertisers are missing out if their advertisements only mention taste and ignore our other senses. As would be expected, most food ads mention the taste of the food being marketed. Researchers from the University of Michigan demonstrated that tapping into our other senses can actually increase consumers’ taste perceptions. The authors suggest that because taste is generated from multiple senses (smell, texture, sight and sound), ads mentioning these senses will have a significant impact on taste over ads that just mention taste. They attempted to prove this through their research.

They randomly assigned participants to view one of two ads. One ad was designed to appeal to multiple senses (the tag line for a chewing gum read “stimulate your senses”) while the other ad mentioned taste alone (“long-lasting flavor”). After sampling the gum, the participants listed thoughts they had regarding the item and then rated the overall taste. The multiple-sense ads led to more positive sensory thoughts, which then led to higher taste perception than the single-sense ad. The differences in thoughts were shown to drive the differences in taste. The researchers were able to repeat the results with potato chips and popcorn.

The authors believe their research is of great value not only to food advertisers but also to restaurants, as the descriptions contained within menus can actually alter the taste experience. Companies can also implement the findings into product packaging information to alter the taste of products consumed in the home. In an increasingly competitive marketplace, ensuring positive consumption experiences is critical to success the authors Ryan Elder and Aradhna Krishna stated.

How much impact does just our sense of sight have on taste perception? According to a recent study conducted by the Nestle Research Centre in Switzerland, research participants found a neutral-tasting stimulus to be more pleasant when it was preceded by images of high-calorie foods such as pizza or a pastry. So what this means is if you’re eating one food while looking at images of various high-calorie foods, you’ll think the food you are eating tastes better. Taste is the primary driver of food acceptance or rejection, but the researcher suggests other sensory cues can provide the brain with essential information prior to food ingestion.

The study, conducted on just 14 participants between the ages of 22 and 30, presented the participants with 150 photographs — 100 were food items and 50 were nonfood kitchen utensils. They were asked to identify the photographs as food or nonfood. An electrode referred to in the research as a “taste stimulus” was placed on each participant’s tongue so the researchers could monitor brain activity in response to the photographs. Based on the brain responses connected with the electrode, the stimuli were perceived more pleasantly when preceded by images of high-calorie food as compared to low-calorie food. The participants were blind to the purpose of the study — they were merely assigned the task of categorizing photographs.

Participants were also shown images of food with varying calorie content. They were then given an unfamiliar taste on the tongue using ‘electro-gustometry’ (which involves passing a gentle electric current through the tongue to create a unique and distinct metallic taste). When viewing high-calorie food images, participants reported the subsequent taste to be more pleasant than when low-calorie food images preceded the identical taste.

So let’s carry this research information over into the dieting world and a possible practical application. We want to encourage people to eat more nutritious foods that may be perceived as not tasting as good as other choices. Is a solution as simple as encouraging people to look at images of high-calorie food at the same time they are eating a bland lunch, and suddenly it might taste better?

If it were only so easy.

Georgia Clark-Albert is a registered dietitian and adjunct nutrition instructor at Eastern Maine Community College who lives in Athens. Read more of her columns and post questions at or email her at

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