Pretty Food Really Does Taste Better—It's Science

New study suggests meal presentation has a direct influence on taste.

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Your mother was right to tell you not to play with your food, unless of course you’re styling it as an ode to Russian abstract painter Wassily Kandinsky. In that case, you’re likely to enjoy the meal even more.

Seriously.

For centuries, chefs and culinary experts have been steadfast in their belief that artfully arranging food on the plate enhances the eating experience. It’s why fancy meals from fancy restaurants often look, more or less, like abstract paintings. But does the thesis hold up to science?

A team of researchers at the University of Oxford recently set out to find the answer, and it may surprise you.

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The researchers provided 30 men and 30 women with one of three salads, each made with completely identical ingredients. The salads differed only in their presentation: One was a typical tossed salad, another was presented in a “neat” formation, and the last was modeled closely after a famous Kandinsky painting. Participants were not told that other versions of the salad were being served, nor were they told that the Kandinsky salad resembled an actual work of art.

The study’s subjects expressed a willingness to pay significantly more for the Kandinsky-aping salad.

Lo and behold, the Kandinsky salad was rated the highest—in terms of both presentation and taste—by a margin of 18 percent. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the participants expressed a willingness to pay significantly more for the salad.

“A number of chefs now are realizing that they are being judged by how their foods photograph—be it in the fancy cookbooks [or], more often than not, when diners Instagram their friends,” Professor Charles Spence, an experimental psychologist at Oxford, told The Guardian.

The margin by which the Kandinsky salad eclipsed the others suggests a clear pattern, regardless of individual tastes. It beat out the other salads in every category—including complexity, artistic presentation, “liking,” willingness to pay, and tastiness.

But how exactly can appearance affect taste?

“It might be just because it looks more appealing,” Spence told the BBC. “It may also be when you see that presentation you can see that someone has put effort into it and that may convey expectations and impact on the experience.”

It may sound weird, but it's not the first time we've seen this kind of result. Earlier this year, a similar study of wine drinkers found that our enjoyment of wine is heavily affected by social cues and the label on the bottle.

Images: Flavour Journal (CC BY 2.0)

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