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Multisensory influences – how sound and light influence taste

By: Reading Time: 3 Minutes

Anyone can describe what a particular food must look like to be perfect. For example, the lovely, deep green of broccoli or the crispy, not-too-thick crust of a loaf of bread. And yet, are we and our tastes really impartial when we sit in a restaurant, for example? Most people will say definitely yes. But is it really true? We have our doubts and therefore shed light on the subject from the scientific perspective.

In fact, many things influence us and therefore our taste, without us really being aware that this is the case. This is called the multisensory influence.

Grandmother’s recipe tastes better

As soon as we enter a restaurant, we are already influenced by our taste – without realizing it. An American research team, for example, investigated how decoration and the theme of a restaurant affect how the food tastes. The result: The same lasagne tastes much better when the theme of the restaurant is “Italy”. Another group conducted a simple but effective test: In one restaurant, half of the guests receive a “normal” menu, and the other half receive the same menu, but with much more impressive names. For example, when the first group was able to order “cookies” as a dessert, the second group was offered “cookies according to grandmother’s recipe”. The result was clear: The second test group rated all dishes much more positively than the first.


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Studies prove that sound and light influence taste

Of course, music also plays a role. Pia Hauck and Heiko Hecht from the University of Mainz had test subjects sample red and white wine. They were able to prove that the evaluation of the wines differed depending on whether the tasting took place in silence or whether music was played by Berg or Tchaikowsky.

An Argentinian team for integrative neuroscience even managed to compose music that was specifically designed to promote one of the five tastes. British Airways has also taken a close look at the influence of aircraft engine noise on taste perception. We know, for example, that we perceive umami flavors more intensely at loftier heights. Some restaurateurs deliberately take advantage of these effects. Probably the best known of them is Heston Blumenthal, who served a sashimi dish with an iPod at The Fat Duck restaurant in Windsor. This allowed guests to listen to the sound of the sea while eating.


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Another adjusting factor is the intensity and color of the lighting. According to a study by Murray University, restaurant visitors rated dishes served under subdued light better.

The color and appearance make the taste

At the table, we are influenced by plates and cutlery. Canadian psychologists discovered that food served on round white plates seemed sweeter. Restaurant guests rate food on square black plates better than on round black plates. Coffee in white cups is considered more intense than coffee in blue cups. And no one will be surprised that several studies show a cork stopper on a wine bottle significantly increases consumers’ opinion of the contents.

However, it’s not just the environment that influences us, it’s also the food itself. The way food is presented, for example, plays a major role in its perceived quality. Color also counts. In a famous and amazing experiment, the University of Bordeaux had a panel of experts taste wine twice. They tasted white wine for the first tasting and the same wine with red coloring for the second. When they described the second wine, they used typical flavors of a red wine.

The best comes last?

Finally, our tastes are influenced by a particularly perverse effect uncovered by Philadelphia University. The better the appetizer appeals to a restaurant’s guests, the more difficulty they will have with the main course. In concrete terms, this means that between a guest who receives an excellent starter and a guest who receives a normal starter, the guest with the excellent starter will rate the entire meal more negatively than the guest with the normal starter. Crazy, right?

Did you know?
To avoid these multisensory influences as far as possible, all tastings for validating cooking processes at RATIONAL, the manufacturer of commercial kitchen technology, take place in a specially designed room with standard-defined lighting. All testers are certified according to high standards and can thus assess the dishes coming from an iCombi or iVario according to objective criteria.


Many thanks to Dr. Grégory Schmauch and the Cooking Research team from RATIONAL for this exciting insight into the subject of “Cooking & Science”.

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