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How do you eat yours? Food rituals may boost flavour perception, suggest researchers

By Nathan Gray+

25-Jul-2013
Last updated on 25-Jul-2013 at 16:44 GMT

Short 'rituals' that many people perform before consuming foods and drinks, even if seemingly insignificant, could boost flavour perception and overall liking of products, according to new research.

The collection of studies, published together in Psychological Science, reveal that small rituals carried out by consumers before consuming food or drinks - such as unwrapping, tapping, or stirring a product in a certain way - can alter flavour perception, with the team behind the study suggesting that while many rituals may seem small or mundane, the effects they produce are 'quite tangible.'

Led by Kathleen Vohs from the University of Minnesota, USA, the research team conducted four experiments to investigate how these kinds of ritualistic behaviours might influence the perception and consumption of food products - finding that even completely fabricated short rituals can produce real effects.

"We systematically had some participants, but not others, perform a ritual and then assessed everyone’s consumption experiences involving eating or drinking," explained the researchers.

"We documented not only that rituals enhance consumption, but also a process by which that enhancement occurs," added Vohs and her team. "Rituals seem to improve the consumption experience because they lead to greater involvement and interest."

The research findings suggest that the inclusion of 'instructions' on how to unwrap or consume a product may prompt engagement in such 'rituals' from consumers, thus increasing flavour perception and product liking.

Study details

In the first of the four studies a group of participants were asked to eat a piece of chocolate following a detailed set of instructions: "Without unwrapping the chocolate bar, break it in half. Unwrap half of the bar and eat it. Then, unwrap the other half and eat it."

Meanwhile, a separate group of participants were simply instructed to relax for a short amount of time and then eat the chocolate bar in whatever fashion they wished.

Vohs and her colleagues found that those who had performed the "ritual" rated the chocolate more highly, savoured it more, and were willing to pay more for the chocolate than the other group - suggesting that even a short, fabricated ritual can produce real effects.

A second experiment reinforced these findings, the team revealed - finding that random movements don't produce a more enjoyable eating experience.

Only repeated, episodic, and fixed behaviours seem to change our perception of the food, they said, adding that a longer delay between the 'ritual' and consumption bolstered these effects.

In the final studies, Vohs and team showed that personal involvement in the ritual is vital to any effect - finding that watching someone else methodically mix lemonade doesn't make it taste any better.

Additionally, they found that "intrinsic interest" - the fact that rituals draw people into what they are doing --fully accounted for the positive effects that rituals have on eating experiences.

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