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Cheese Tastes Saltier Eaten Off a Knife (and How That Might Make You Healthier)

In asking questions like “does the dish affect the dish?” researchers are serving mouthfuls of tasty factoids—which may help us eat better and lose weight.
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A wedge of West Country Cheddar cheese, made in Somerset. (PHOTO: J.P.Lon/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

A wedge of West Country Cheddar cheese, made in Somerset. (PHOTO: J.P.Lon/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

It’s always bothered me (a little) that in the Food Network show Chopped competitors’ meals are judged not just on taste and creativity, but presentation. To be honest, this focus on looks really only bothers me when someone I like is getting hassled because their dish looks like, well, like I plated it. (This is not a compliment.)

But the part of me that doesn’t care how prettified my dinner is wars with all sorts of outside inputs battling inside my head—but not on my tongue—to influence what I’m tasting. Things like oysters and liver always tasted awful to me because, well, they look gross, and that was all my taste buds needed to be told to pass judgment.

That’s a common and obvious example. So is the idea that we transfer sensations implied by packaging or names into our consumption—blue is refreshing, red makes us feel fuller sooner—both acknowledged and exploited.

"Keeping people on their toes, and unable to fulfill expectations, might make them slow down their consumption so that they might eat less."

Now, through the glories of cognitive neuroscience, we know that lots of things that aren’t even food or fraud—cups, plates, even utensils—affect both consumption and taste. A couple of Oxford psychologists, sometimes with the help of a post-doc now in Spain, have been delving into the mysteries of cup and cutlery for a while, determining things like hot cocoa tastes best in an orange cup  and strawberry mousse is sweeter on a white plate, or that people like food more when it’s on a heavier plate and when wielding heavier spoons, or if they literally like the way it sounds. (They’re not the only ones discovering tasty tidbits in this field; Koert van Ittersum and Brian Wansink keep hitting paydirt determining how much we consume based on the shape of our glasses or color of our plate, not to mention how lighting and music may be a dieter’s friend.)

The Oxford researchers, Vanessa Harrar and Charles Spence, have extended their franchise on this particular slice of suppertime science by asking, and answering, how the color, heft, and shape of our utensils influences what we taste. Their paper appears online in the journal Flavour.

Working in the media of Greek yogurt and cheddar cheese, they determined that food tastes saltier when sampled from a knife; white yogurt (but not pink) is sweeter eaten from a white spoon; and yogurt overall tastes sweeter when eaten from a lighter plastic spoon or a smaller spoon. (Apparently those people serving samples in the chic yogurt emporiums are not the doe-eyed innocents they seem.)

While the exact results might be culture specific—the participants were about three dozen Oxford undergrads, all British, and a majority were female—the researchers’ takeaway was not. So while the knife finding may derive from the experience of cheese shops offering tastes from the paring knives they use to chip off samples, knowing that the implement affects perception gives a promising avenue for, say, reducing salt intake.

Or the spoon thing—it’s not the plasticness of the spoon that created the sweeter sensation, the academics suggest, but the idea that the spoon was the kind of spoon you should eat yogurt with. That expectations were met influenced the participants, not the absolute qualities of the implement.

This sort of stuff is a boon for marketing, but Harrar and Spece see a less cynical application, too. By breaking the chain of assumptions with a helping of novelty, for example, we might be able to head off overconsumption.

Following up on important ideas pursued by psychologist Theresa M. Marteau about breaking up people’s automatic responses to prevent disease (like, umm, obesity), they suggest :

What might be particularly effective in terms of reducing people’s unhealthy eating habits would be to make unhealthy food difficult to find (not grouped together with like products) and to have unintuitive packaging so that blue no longer signals a salty snack. Keeping people on their toes, and unable to fulfill expectations, might make them slow down their consumption so that they might eat less or make better food choices in the market.

Maybe that kind of thinking should influence the judging on Chopped, which would make the presentation decisions a lot more meaningful to me.