Enjoying food: Why plates and cutlery (weirdly) matter
In a recent article, we talked about how the color of foods and drinks can influence how you perceive taste and flavor.
While writing it, we came across a very niche selection of studies. And we simply had to share them with you. So, that’s what we’ll do here.
In a nutshell, these studies show that the tableware you use — plates, cutlery, and the like — can influence the taste and flavor of your foods and drinks. Surprising, right?
We’ll give you a whistle-stop tour of this unusual field of study. And we’ll start with cutlery.
Cutlery and cuisine
A study in 2011 investigated whether cutlery made of different metals tasted different.
Among other findings, the scientists showed that gold and chrome spoons were “the least metallic, least bitter, and least strong-tasting.”
In comparison, zinc and copper spoons were “the strongest, most metallic, most bitter, and least sweet-tasting.”
So, if you’re not a fan of metallic tastes, why not opt for a golden spoon?
Another study went one step further, and this is where it gets more interesting. The researchers tested whether spoons plated in different metals influenced the taste of food.
They asked participants to sample sweet, sour, bitter, salty, or plain cream from spoons coated in gold, copper, zinc, or stainless steel.
The spoons all had the same weight, shape, and size. And the researchers blindfolded the participants so that visual clues didn’t influence them.
The study found that zinc and copper enhanced the taste of the creams. In particular, they boosted bitterness.
When people used these spoons to eat the bitter cream, it tasted significantly more bitter. Gold and stainless steel spoons, however, didn’t alter taste perception.
OK, so let’s get even stranger — what about the weight of the cutlery?
A weighty spoon
In one study, scientists asked participants to eat yogurt with either a metallic-looking plastic spoon or a metal spoon.
The participants rated the yogurt as more pleasant and of higher quality when they had used the heavier metal spoon.
The authors suggest that the participants may have subconsciously considered the metal spoon to be of higher quality. This sense of quality might have subconsciously been transferred to the food.
This is called “sensation transference.” And it’ll come up a few times throughout this article.
However, to confuse matters, another study found that people rated yogurt as more dense and expensive when they had used a plastic spoon, not a weighted spoon.
Scientists are still trying to get a handle on the subtle influences of tableware on our flavor perception.
A large fork
So, it seems that cutlery can affect how you experience food. But can it influence how much you eat? The authors of a study set in a restaurant concluded that it can.
The researchers gave diners different-sized forks. Surprisingly, they found that people with smaller forks ate more food than those with larger forks.
But when they tried the same experiment in laboratory conditions, they found the opposite — people using smaller forks ate less.
So, your eating environment seems to matter, and we’ll touch on that again later.
Clearly, cutlery is more important than most of us supposed. But what about your plate?
Does the dish affect the dish?
Plates come in all kinds of colors. Does that matter? By now, you might have guessed that it does. And you’re right.
In one study, participants ate salty or sweet popcorn from four different bowls colored green, blue, white, or red.
When they ate sweet popcorn from a blue bowl, it tasted saltier than when they ate it from a white bowl.
And the salty popcorn tasted sweeter from red and blue bowls than from white ones.
In a delicious study from 2012, researchers served participants strawberry-flavored mousse on either a black or white plate.
When they received the white plate, the participants enjoyed the mousse more. And they rated it as significantly sweeter and more intense.
The team suggests that the color of the mousse may have appeared more intense against the white plate. And this intense contrast might have translated into a perception of intense flavor.
Again, it could be a case of sensation transference.
Scientists don’t know precisely why plate color influences flavor perception.
But the authors of a review hope that the results will “make innovative chefs think a little more carefully about the color of their plateware and its potential effects on customers’ flavor perception.”
So, the color matters, but what about the size of the dish? One study asked this very question.
Participants, who were all “nutrition experts,” received either a small or large bowl. They served themselves ice cream using a small or large serving spoon.
Those with big bowls served themselves 31% more ice cream. And serving sizes increased by 14.5% when they used the larger serving spoon.
The authors suggest that these generous helpings might stem from the Ebbinghaus-Titchener size-contrast illusion. In other words, you perceive a portion as smaller if it’s in a bigger bowl and vice versa.
A weighty bowl
We learned earlier that a heavier spoon influenced people’s perception of yogurt. So, what about the weight of the bowl?
The authors of one study asked participants to rate yogurt as they ate it from a bowl. The participants held their bowls in their hands.
The bowls looked identical, but they were three different weights.
Those who used the heaviest bowl rated the yogurt as more dense, pleasant, intense, and expensive, compared with those who used the lightest bowl.
This might be another case of sensation transference — the participants may have subconsciously transferred the perception of a heavy bowl onto the yogurt, making it seem more dense.
But what of the study we mentioned earlier, in which people rated yogurt as more dense and expensive when they had used a plastic spoon, not a weighted spoon?
Perhaps sensation transference isn't the full story.
A rough plate
OK, so we’ve looked at color, weight, and size. What about texture? According to one study, sensation transference might be at work here, too.
The researchers served up biscuits and chewy candies called jelly babies on rough and smooth plates.
They found that the biscuits felt rougher when eaten from the rough plate and smoother, “as if melting in the mouth,” when eaten from the smooth plate.
Also, the biscuits tasted more salty and gingery from the rough plate, and they tasted sweeter from the smooth plate.
Angular cup patterns
The last study we’ll cover today asked whether 3D-printed tactile designs on a cup could influence how people perceived drinks.
By now, you won’t be surprised that the patterns did make a difference.
The scientists tested coffee and a chocolate drink served in cups with angular or rounded surface patterns.
They found that when people drank from a cup with an angular surface pattern, they perceived the drink as more bitter and intense.
When the cup had the rounded pattern, the drink tasted sweeter and less intense.
What does it all mean?
There are a lot of outstanding questions in this research. And, as you’ve seen, not all studies agree.
Looking for and measuring the subtle effects of cutlery and plates on our perception of food is very challenging.
After all, if the cutlery makes a difference to how you perceive your dinner, you can safely assume that a lot of other things matter, too.
These factors could include the chair you're sitting on, art on the wall in front of you, and the color of the shirt of the person sitting across from you.
Scientists have studied all kinds of factors that can influence how we perceive food, how much we enjoy it, how much we eat, and how much we’re willing to pay for it.
Plus, because we’re all different, we’re sure to be affected slightly differently by each of these cues. And, of course, your age and cultural background is likely to matter.
All in all, we have a long way to go before we fully understand how these interacting factors affect what we eat, whether we enjoy it, and how much we have.
As scientists continue to investigate, we’re likely to see some fascinating and unusual research along the way.
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