Many people in the food service industry will tell you that presentation, while not everything, is a huge component of how someone experiences food. There is nothing like a dirty spoon or a dirty glass to ruin someone’s experience with a meal. Recently I attended the Fancy Food Show in NYC, and exhibitors were handing out little samples of hugely expensive cheese on small paper spoons. While the cheese (in most cases) tasted great, I have no doubt that, if served in a nice setting with nicer cutlery, it would have tasted that much better.
This conceit is kind of the basis for a series of studies, recently published in the journal Flavour, about how spoons, knives and other utensils we put in our mouths can provide their own kind of “mental seasoning” for a meal. Alterations in taste perceptions aren’t necessarily the result of the cutlery itself, says Charles Spence, a professor of experimental psychology at Oxford University, but of the mental associations we bring to a meal. According to NPR, psychologists have found that the color and shape of plates and other dishes can have an impact on the eating experience. Studies have found, for example, that people tend to eat less when their dishes are in sharp color-contrast to their food, that the color can alter a drinker’s perception of how sweet and aromatic hot cocoa is, and that drinks can seem more thirst-quenching when consumed from a glass with a “cold” color like blue.
Spence conducted a study involving yogurt and a number of volunteers. Here is what he discovered:
• People will rate the very same yogurt 15 percent tastier and more expensive when sampled with a silver spoon rather than a plastic spoon or a lighter (by weight) option.
• Combining a heavier bowl with a heavier spoon will tend to make yogurt taste better.
• Plastic packaging or plate ware that’s more rounded will tend to emphasize sweetness.
• Angular plates tend to bring out the bitterness in food, which works well for dishes like dark chocolate or coffee-based desserts, Spence says.
• People will rate cheeses as tasting saltier when eaten off a knife, compared to a toothpick, spoon or fork.
• In general, foods tend to be perceived as more enjoyable when eaten off heavier plates and with heavier cutlery – perhaps because heft is equated with expense.
Do you think it matters what color or quality of cutlery or dishware you eat from? Will it really change your experience of the food? Will the most delicious soufflé taste just as delicious on a paper plate than it would at an immaculate place setting?