By Christopher Zook
Creating the perfect presentation for a meal is important — dishes have to be balanced, positioned, layered, and garnished just right, and that's only for starters. But new research published in the Journal of Sensory Studies suggests that presentation is far more significant to a consumer's experience than previously thought. While a visually engaging presentation is impressive, it can also have a profound impact on what you're serving (especially beverages), right down to how it tastes.
A team of researchers from the Polytechnic University of Valencia and the University of Oxford conducted experiments with volunteers concerning the flavor of hot chocolate. Researchers gave volunteers the same hot chocolate, and each volunteer received a cup that was the same size and internal color. However, the outside color varied from cup to cup. When the researchers compared taste results, the findings were surprising.
Volunteers who drank hot chocolate out of an orange cup reported that it tasted and even smelled better than when it was served in cups of other colors. While the difference wasn't large enough to make someone love or hate the drink, it was enough to change the perception of the flavor in a measurable way. The same study also found that the color yellow emphasizes the flavor of lemons in soft drinks, beverages in cool-colored containers (like blue) more effectively quench thirst, and drinks in pink containers are considered more sugary. So the next time you look for glassware, keep in mind that color is a big deal to your customer — even if they don't realize it.
There's a reason your mouth waters when you smell something cooking — your body wants to eat whatever smells so delicious. On top of being the primary sense tied to memory, your sense of smell is also largely tied to your sense of taste. It's obviously most recognizable with fragrant food. But a big reason you can taste the subtle spices or salts used in cooking is because as you chew, you're actually forcing air through your open nasal passages, drastically increasing your ability to "taste". (This is also why things don't taste as strong when you have a cold or sinus infection.)
Flavor is commonly broken down into five basic groups: sweet, bitter, sour, salty, and umami (or "savory"). Much like how a yellow colored cup can bring out the lemony taste in a beverage, a bitter citrus fragrance can help boost it to the next level. So if you have a way to make your dish or drink more aromatic, then give it a shot, because it might be that little extra that turns your dish from "delicious" to "unforgettable".
Also, scent is definitively the sense most strongly tied to memory, so you could, in theory, literally make a dish that's unforgettable.
Touch and Taste
Believe it or not, the way something feels has a slight but noticeable impact on whether or not someone actually enjoys their beverage. According to research from Rutgers University, something as out-of-the-blue as the firmness of a container can affect a person's perception of taste.
The experiment featured mineral water served in both firm and flimsy cups, with the majority of participants preferring the water served in the firm cups. Like the hot chocolate experiment, there was no difference in the water given to any participant. Unlike the hot chocolate experiment, it turns out that not everyone is as sensitive to their sense of touch as they are to their sense of sight.
Some subjects (called "low haptics" in the study) showed a greater sensitivity to the make-up of the container, and that impacted their perception of how the water tasted. For those where touch wasn't as relevant ("high haptics"), there wasn't much of a difference.
Still, the experiment is valuable. You can easily please both your "low haptic" and "high haptic" customers by stocking more high-quality glassware and avoiding cheaper plastics. So if you have any colorful, aromatic, and firm glassware around, you should consider using it — your customers' reactions might surprise you.