Taste beyond flavour: How colour, texture and environment influence taste perception


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Professor Charles Spence examines the sound, smell, and shape of flavour...
Professor Charles Spence examines the sound, smell, and shape of flavour...

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The way we taste foods is actually far more complex than their flavour alone. Neuroscientist Professor Charles Spence discusses how the shape, smell and colour of a food, its packaging, and even the setting in which it is eaten, affect the way it tastes.

Last year, Cadbury changed the shape of its Dairy Milk chocolate bars – and received a mass of complaints online about its recipe change. In fact, it hadn’t touched the recipe, but despite Cadbury’s insistence that its well-loved milk chocolate tasted the same, consumers knew better; changing its shape had indeed changed the way it tasted​.

Professor Spence, a neuroscientist and sensory marketing expert at the University of Oxford in the UK, says Cadbury underestimated the impact of the chocolate’s shape on its flavour.

The rounder shape emphasised its sweetness, an effect he says the company could have used to reduce sugar content, without affecting taste.

“You could combine that shape of the chocolate with a reduction in the sugar and everybody’s happy,”​ he said. “There is a whole science to matching shape to taste and texture. You can give nudges by understanding shape and colour.”

Rounder is sweeter…

According to research led by Spence and published in the journal Flavour​, rounder shapes tend to taste sweeter while angular shapes taste bitter. And he has also led studies suggesting taste perception is influenced by colour, texture, packaging, environment, and the crockery and cutlery used.

“We have been putting spoons and forks and knives in our mouths for hundreds of years but until 2011, there had been no paper published about whether they affected taste…Some of the top chefs have been collaborating with scientists and they have blazed a trail in a way,”​ he said.

This all has big implications for the food and restaurant industries, and Spence has worked with major food manufacturers and flavour companies, including Unilever and Firmenich, as well as with top-end chefs, including Heston Blumenthal.

“I have been interested in the senses for many years,”​ he said. “Everything else outside of food is equally important.”

So what can companies do to incorporate other senses when developing new products?

“There are many, many things that food companies can do: If they change the colour of the product, it can change the taste; if they change the colour of the packaging, it can change the taste….If the weight of the product or the container changes, it can change the impression of the quality or how expensive the product is.

“There is a lot of movement towards lightweighting in packaging, but it could have an effect on perception of quality.”

To counter this effect, he suggests giving an illusion of weight, perhaps by making a bottle cap that is much heavier than expected, or by using ‘heavy’ colours. Spence said that people tended to judge darker, more saturated colours as literally heavier than paler colours.

There could be some cultural differences in these effects, but research has already suggested that there are cross-cultural similarities too. For example, researchers have found high-pitched sounds seem to go well with sweeter tastes and low-pitched sounds with bitter tastes – and this was consistent across many cultures.

“There are questions about cross cultural differences. These have been ignored up till now but are getting more interest as companies are looking to new markets,” ​he said.


Professor Spence will be speaking about how a better understanding of the senses can lead to novel approaches in food innovation at Food Vision​, an event organised by the publishers of FoodNavigator. Click here to find out more about FoodVision​, taking place in Cannes, France in April 2014.

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