Don’t Trust the Cost of Expensive Foods

Katie Arnolds 02/17/2019

Guest Author, Katie Arnolds, is a student in the PhD program at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus

We grow up thinking of taste as one of the five senses, but taste is so much more! Taste is the result of all the senses working together. While we eat, our brains process information from our taste buds, visual cues, sounds, smell, and touch.  Taste buds tell us if something is salty, sweet, sour, bitter, or umami (savory), all of which essentially let us know if something is palatable. Extremely bitter or sour foods could be a warning that food may be poisonous or rotten. We respond positively to sweet and salty foods because they contain necessary electrolytes and carbohydrates and savory foods provide essential amino acids. If we eat something that provides what our body needs, the brain releases dopamine thus eliciting pleasure and encouraging you to repeat that action. This is a reward pathway in the brain.

We all know there is more to flavor than just salty or sweet; the complexity starts with the nose. As we eat, air from our mouth goes to olfactory receptors in the nose. The brain then combines these signals with information coming from the taste buds such as flavor and texture. Our eyes and ears shape the experience as well. Adding red dye to white wine can trick even experienced wine tasters into thinking they are drinking red wine. Also, consumers will report that a cheese that has sharp edges tastes “sharper” than the same cheese that is cut round. Being able to hear the crunch of your potato chips influences how crispy you think they are.  The brain puts all this sensory information together and then incorporates personal biases and perception, which recent research indicates may play a large role in how we experience our food.

It’s always a treat to go out for a nice meal, but is it possible that our perception of the quality is proportionately influenced by the size of the bill? It seems that simply the suggestion that we are getting better food can change our perception. Researchers at Cornell University observed that participants rated food they believed was more expensive as tasting better. Interestingly, people who were told the same food was cheaper not only rated it as less flavorful, but were also more likely to report feeling full or guilty they’d overeaten. Another study investigated how the perceived cost of wine would influence consumers’ experience.  People were given the same wine, but were told that it either cost $10 or $90. Those who received the”$90” bottle rated the wine much higher than those who received the “$10” bottle. This study also used a functional MRI (fMRI), a machine that measures brain activity while a person is engaged in an action. fMRI images of the people who thought they were drinking the expensive wine showed increased activity in the region of the brain associated with pleasure.

Understanding this complex phenomenon may be exploited to sell us junk food and get us “hooked” on certain products, but it could also enable us to enjoy our food more and avoid overeating.  For instance, another study found that diners who ate their meals under dim lighting enjoyed their meals more and consumed less, than people eating the same meal under bright lights.

We all know food activates the reward center of the brain, but it’s becoming clear that the pleasure we derive from eating is the result of many factors.  So for your next meal, embrace the experience and enjoy!

(This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared in the Spanish Language magazine, Contrapoder, co-edited by the Denver Museum of Nature & Science and the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus for the monthly blog series, “Know Health”. Reposted with author’s permission.)

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