Plated Palates: How Cutlery Influences Food Flavor

Findings may help people eat healthier

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Courtesy of Elizabeth Willing

Food flavors are not only determined by tastebuds, but also the size, weight and color of plates and utensils, according to researchers at University of Oxford.

Adding to an already growing body of research, a new study in the journal Flavour found that meal utensils can alter perceptions of taste just as much as the cuisine or plating. In three experiments designed to examine whether food tastes different by varying the color, weight and size of spoons, forks and knives, the study shows that generally food is perceived as more tasty when eaten with heavier cutlery on heavier plates.

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The study’s co-author Vanessa Harrar tells TIME that color and weight are just examples of how we generate expectations, which the brain creates by learning from previous experiences and allowing it to sort of run on auto-pilot. “This is good because it’s less energy for the brain if it’s just relying on the past experience of what you learned,” she said. “But it’s not so good for eating because you’re not really experiencing or tasting the food in that moment.”

For instance, by removing expectations of how a consumer eats food the researchers found that the color blue as well as eating cheese off a knife cues saltiness. Also, yogurt is perceived to be denser and pricier when tasted from a lighter plastic spoon. While the research behind food perception is still new, Harrar says her study’s findings could help individuals with eating healthier.

“If we can bring people out of their habits or automatic behavior, they’ll have an opportunity to change their behavior,” she says. “Whether that’s using blue cutlery or eating off of funny plates, it’s something that really makes you pay attention to the situation.”

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This new study adds to a growing body of research indicating that people’s perceptions of flavor and fullness aren’t just related to what they’re putting in our mouths. Co-author Charles Spence contributed to another study published in Food Quality and Preference in 2012 that found that the color of a plate can significantly change the way people perceive the food on top of it. A group of 53 subjects thought that the same strawberry mousse was on average more intense, sweeter and more enjoyable when placed on a white instead of black plate. And it’s not just the color that matters.

According to another study, published in the May 2013 issue of Pediatrics, if the plate is smaller, consumers will take and eat less food. Even the size of the utensil can reduce eating because using an over-sized fork makes diners feel like they are making a bigger dent in their dinners with each bite.

If just using a different utensil can curb an appetite, this body of research might give countries struggling with obesity a shortcut to slimming down.

- with reporting from Claire Groden

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