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Eat Your Words: 3 Research Studies That Prove Food Names Actually Change What We Taste

Hearing the words 'pumpkin spice latte' is often enough to remind the average consumer of fall. Research has found the name of food and beverage items has more influence than previously thought.

The holiday season is firmly in our rearview, yet thanks to local coffee depots, you’re probably looking forward to chugging a succulent apple cider, downing a piping hot peppermint mocha, or succumbing to the siren’s call of the Pumpkin Spice Latte year-round. Consciously, you know these yummy treats excite your taste buds – but did you know research shows that before the first sip touches your tongue, the name of your holiday favorite has already transformed what you’ll taste? Gather ‘round the psychology fire for some unusual insights into how names affect our sensory experience!

The Power of a Name

In a 2018 study, a team led by Dr. Cecile Morris of Sheffield Hallam University ran a study to test the sensory experience of a fruit drink across summer and winter months, altering only its name between trials. They assembled a large mix of expert tasters, food retailers, dieticians, and caterers to serve as participants over the course of the experiment. When labeled as “Winter Spice”, the common fruit beverage was rated highly on measures of spice, mulled wine, clove, blackcurrant, cinnamon, and “Christmassy” flavor  – an effect greatly magnified during the winter months. During the summer, the exact same drink barely registered on those attributes but ranked highly on fruity flavor, refreshing, light, and thirst-quenching properties – when served up with the name “Refreshing Summer Berries”. As with Winter Spice, this effect was more pronounced during the appropriate season, summer.

The Contagion Effect

That’s not the only funky twist happening in your mind-palate relationship. The 2019 paper A Taste of the Elite: The effect of pairing food products with elite groups on taste perceptions, found that simply associating food with a high-status group causes consumers to exhibit more favorable perceptions of taste. In a phenomenon known as the contagion effect, buyers subconsciously believe that the intangible qualities of the social elite – their “transferred essence” – rubs off on their food choices, and can be obtained by simply eating like them. Another psychological factor at play is the idea that the upper crust has a superior taste in food (see Downton Abbey).

In a fascinating 2019 study, a fictitious cookie brand “favored by European royalty” and “used in recipes by Michelin-starred chefs” tasted over 51% better to participants, while chocolate macarons seemed more delicious when it was suggested that 70% of people who bought them had Masters degrees or PhDs. 

The Power of the Label

If your cider is alcohol-free this year, beware – you still can’t outwit the subtle forces of psychology. In the aptly named study “What’s in a name?”, scientists from Wageningen University presented drinkers at a bar with either beer or non-alcoholic beer, with the labels either correct or switched. Non-alcoholic beer is typically associated with neutral to negative emotional responses like rational or disappointment, but labeling it “beer” led to significantly higher levels of fulfillment, as well as overall positive arousal. Meanwhile, beer’s usually positive ratings tanked when it was labeled as a NAB. “Participants felt less comforted, exuberant, good, happy, joyful and loving” after drinking it since their expectations weren’t met.

So whether you’re a home chef mixing punch for the party, or a brand aiming to make a big splash with your seasonal launch someday, be sure to set expectations by keeping your descriptions festive, classy, and accurate! 

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Hannibal and Malcolm Brooks

Hannibal and Malcolm Brooks

Insights Associates, Olson Zaltman