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Sound can change our perception of food

Background sounds played during a meal can significantly affect how food tastes, according to research conducted by Unilever R&D and the University of Manchester.

Noise influences enjoyment

We already know that taste and smell play critical roles in helping us enjoy our food. But what hasn’t been properly explored – until now – is how much background sound can influence our sense of taste.

In the research program, blindfolded participants were fed an assortment of sweet and savory foods such as biscuits, flapjacks, cheese crackers and Marmite rice cakes, while listening to ‘white noise’ – similar to that produced by an untuned radio – at different volume levels through headphones. The participants then rated the intensity of the flavors and how much they liked them.

It seems people lose their sense of taste when listening to white noise. When the participants liked the background sound, it enhanced their enjoyment of the flavor of the food. When they disliked the background sound, it reduced their enjoyment. This may help to explain the poor reputation of airline food, where the drone of the engines may interfere with the pleasure of eating.

Volume affects crunchiness

A second strand of the research focused on taste and crunchiness. The team found that, as the volume of background noise increased, the diners’ perception of the crunchiness increased. Surprisingly, at the same time, their perception of the strength of salt or sugary flavors decreased.

These findings suggest sound may affect both the perception of a food’s freshness and palatability – so salads may be perceived as ‘crunchier’ if accompanied by louder music, whereas a restaurant serving salty food could consider turning the background music down to reduce the need for additional sodium in their food.

The perfect soundtrack to a meal

Unilever is currently investigating potential explanations for this, including the possibility that background noise tends to move attention away from the food or distorts the brain’s ability to accurately gauge the senses.

The next step is to take the research further. Ultimately it might be possible to work out the perfect soundtrack to enhance any meal.

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