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food criticAccording to countless studies in recent years, there is substantial evidence that we are easily influenced by environmental factors in our judgments about taste. Green and red lighting adds to the fruitiness of red wine. We eat faster in rooms with glaring light. One study demonstrated that the taste of bell pepper and chocolate were more highly rated when listening to jazz or hip-hop. According to this study, when loud music is playing, alcohol tastes sweeter and we more easily misjudge alcoholic strength. (If you have spent much time in a bar you already knew that.)

Here is a useful summary of some of this research. For a more comprehensive treatment see The Perfect Meal: The Multisensory Experience of Food and Dining by Spence and Piqueras-Fiszman.

This research is troubling for anyone who depends on the objectivity of their sensory experience—such as wine and food critics.  If our taste perceptions are so powerfully influenced by our environment how are we to give objective evaluations of wine and food?

Wine and food tasting is already challenging enough because flavors and flavor memories often lack definition, we lack the semantic categories that would help with identification and recall, and we all have different thresholds for the detection of various chemical substances that trigger flavor sensations.

The important question that does not receive enough attention from researchers is to what degree we can control these influences if we are aware of them. If you know loud music influences your perception of sweetness, can you control the effect by refocusing your attention or tuning out the music? Are experienced critics less influenced by these factors than novices?

Rational, self-control is sometimes effective in controlling emotions. It would be nice to know if rational, self control extends to perceptions as well.

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