Can the Colour of the Cup Change the Flavour of What’s Inside?

Coffee mug

Researchers haven’t found that the colour of a cup actually changes the taste of a cup of hot chocolate… but they have found that it influences your gustatory experience of it. That is to say, your brain sees the colour of the cup, which influences the way it processes the actual taste of the hot chocolate. This is a simple psychology study that nicely adds to the research literature that shows how ignorant we are of things that influence us.

Betina Piqueras-Fiszman from Polytechnic University of Valencia (Spain) and Charles Spence from the University of Oxford (England) collaborated on this study which was just published a few weeks ago. A total of 57 participants tasted the same drink in four cups of equal size and shape but different quality. The participants preferred the flavour of the hot chocolate when presented in orange or cream-coloured cups, as opposed to white or red ones.

The doesn’t mean that you’re guaranteed to have a more tasty cup of hot chocolate if you have it in an orange or cream cup, but the research is important because it adds to the body of knowledge on how colours influence people without their knowledge. For example, Andrew Elliot and Daniela Niesta published a study in 2009 that showed how men are attracted to the colour red, and that men find women more sexually desirable when they wear red. Just like the woman in the red dress in “The Matrix.”

In many nonhuman primates, the color red enhances males’ attraction to females. In 5 experiments, the authors demonstrate a parallel effect in humans: Red, relative to other achromatic and chromatic colors, leads men to view women as more attractive and more sexually desirable.
Men seem unaware of this red effect, and red does not influence women’s perceptions of the attractiveness of other women, nor men’s perceptions of women’s overall likeability, kindness, or intelligence.

Obviously being attracted to the colour red has serious implications for the fashion industry, just like how the colour of the cup’s influence on taste has serious implications for marketers and advertisers. Not that marketers didn’t already know a lot of the science, though… they have to know this stuff to compete against all the other ads that use this knowledge.

Previous studies have shown that yellow cans enhance the perception of the taste of lemon soft drinks, while “cold colours” like blue seems to have a greater thirst-quenching quality than “warm colours” like red. Also, strawberry mousse is considered sweeter when prepared on a white plate than a black plate. And brown packaging is associated with a stronger flavour and aroma for coffee, with red packaging amplifying this sensation, whereas blue and yellows make it seem less strong.

Perhaps these findings can be explained by our cultural associations with colour. Obviously they may vary among cultures – e.g. Chinese people consider “red” to be of far more cultural importance than in, say, Iceland – but everyone experiences fire the same way, and fire is usually associated with red. So that may help explain it, though this association is only speculative.

In the end, all that needs to be said is that people often forget just how many senses are involved in eating. In fact, it wouldn’t be entirely farfetched to say that you’ve already started the process of eating as soon as you pick your ingredients off the shelf at the supermarket.

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