You've got a favorite coffee mug, right? It comforts you and everything just tastes better in it, and woe to the person in the office who touches it. It turns out there may be a scientific reason for your preference — a study in the Journal of Sensory Studies discovered color could influence taste of the contents, making them seem tastier and that colorful mug more valuable to you.
It sounds a bit crazy, but scientists put the idea that color influences taste to the test. Researchers at the Polytechnic University of Valencia in Spain and at the University of Oxford in England served 57 subjects hot chocolate in four different cups — white, cream, red and orange.
The participants rated each cup and its contents on a scale of one to ten in terms of sweetness, chocolate flavor and aroma, and most importantly how they enjoyed it. Despite the contents of the cups being the same, the subjects reported the hot chocolate in the orange and cream cups had the best flavor.
Orange took the prize for most intense flavor and cream scored for the aroma and sweetness. Which cup scored the worst? The white ones. Starbucks, you might want to take note of that.
According to the scientists behind the study, that's exactly the point of the research. They note in their paper:
"These results should hopefully help stimulate chefs, restaurateurs, and those working in the food and beverage packaging sectors to think more carefully about the color of their plateware/packaging and its potential effects on their customers' perception of the taste/flavor of the products that they happen to be serving/delivering to market."
In a billion dollar industry, findings like this are extremely valuable, and it's not the first study of food preferences, and surely won't be the last. This latest research seems to reinforce of a 2007 study in the Journal of Consumer Research.
This study looked at orange juice that had slightly manipulated color and sweetness levels. Again, taking away every other cue or "preference" like a brand name, the color of the orange juice swayed people's "discrimination" or taste.
So why does color matter? From the scientific perspective, researchers have yet to crack that code. Their belief is there is a link to how the brain processes visual information and allows it to influence our sense of taste. Given the stakes, no doubt the research will continue.
Looking at the research in a bigger picture way, it shows that like the human brain, choice and taste are complicated. No longer is it just about a brand, or a smell. The research suggests that food or beverage choice and your enjoyment of it — which will keep you coming back — is a multi-sensory experience before you even pick up your cup or fork.
Going back to the example of your favorite mug, if it's not orange or cream but you are still in love with it and how it makes your coffee taste, don't worry. It just reinforces the studies that show taste is a complicated, multi-sensory experience; your brew could taste better because your grandma gave you that mug.
After all, memory is a sensory experience too.