Every year a new food health demon is discovered lurking in our diets; trans fats, processed meats, salt and the eternal favourite, sugar. So when Nestle recently announced they had patented a scientific breakthrough which would allow them to reduce the amount of sugar in their chocolate by 40% without it affecting the taste it seems like a win-win situation for all.
Now what I find most interesting about this is that maybe it is not a molecular breakthrough that you need to change the taste of something, but psychology. To use the (scientifically incorrect) metaphor of the boiling frog; if it is believed that the taste has not changed then will anyone notice that it has??
As scientists we operate in a world of double blind conditions when it comes to taste tests, lab participants are asked if A or B tastes sweeter, and are supposed to give their judgement solely based upon the biological sensory information that their taste buds are providing. But in the real world pretty much everything affects our taste; mood, colour, atmospherics and to a huge extent our own expectations.
It has been demonstrated in numerous experiments that identical products labelled as more expensive tastes better. There’s a lot of research that demonstrates Our preferred brand also tastes better to us than other brands, but only if we see the branding, the so called Pepsi Paradox! What’s even more interesting is in patients who had experienced damage to their vmPFC, an area of the brain which is heavily involved in decision making, the preference for the branded product disappears and preference becomes solely based upon taste.
Basically if we expect something to taste the same then there is a good chance it will. I’m not suggesting that Nestle haven’t made genuine scientific progress with the structure of sugar (it’s probably not possible to patent a placebo yet, though there’s a good argument it should be), rather that it is more important that consumers believe that it tastes the same, because that in turn will influence how it ‘actually’ tastes. Society treats the placebo effect with contempt, and I’m as guilty as anyone of denouncing pseudoscience, but nutritionists, scientists and marketers need to consider that physiology and psychology are inherently intertwined.
Classical conditioning is an important factor in this phenomenon, when we see branded chocolate it acts as a conditioned stimulus and provides us with a reward. With a conditioned response the reward is provided by the conditioned stimulus, not the actual real reward, so whether or not we go on to consume the chocolate we don’t gain any more “utility”. So what it’s not as good as it was when it was sweeter? You’ve received your serotonin reward already.
To paraphrase Descartes “I think therefore it is”; all of our judgements of an item take place in our brain, and it is ultimately the sum of these inputs that determines our perception of “taste”. Or, as Kahneman (2011) so succinctly put it, What You See Is All There Is.