The interaction between senses has always been fascinating to me. That’s why I was excited today when I stumbled across a couple papers talking about the interaction between how we perceive the taste of food and the color of the cookware that it’s served in. In one paper, researchers found that the same coffee, when served in differently colored mugs, was rated differently on metrics of flavor intensity and sweetness. Coffee was rated significantly more intense and less sweet when it was served in a white mug than when it was served in a blue mug or a clear glass mug. *
The big question these findings imply is why? Why would the color of the mug impact how coffee tastes? The short answer is, of course, that it doesn’t. The color of your mug can’t physically alter the properties of your coffee to make it sweeter or more intense. What the color of the mug can do, however, is change your perception of how the coffee tastes. That being said, perception is incredibly powerful. In the case of the coffee, the researchers proposed the following explanation for their results:
“If the colour of the mug affects the way in which people perceive the colour of the coffee, and the colour of the coffee affects the perception of flavour, then the colour of the mug (and any contrast effect that it elicits) would be expected to influence the perceived properties of the coffee,” (1).
Following this line of thinking, the participants rated the coffee served in white mugs as more intense and bitter because the contrast between the white of the mug and the brown of the coffee made the coffee look richer and darker, which changed the way the participants perceived its taste.
It turns out, coffee isn’t the only instance where the color of the cookware changes the way we perceive the food. Another recent study found that people rated cheesecake higher for sweetness and quality when it was served on a white plate than on a black plate (2). Instead of color contrast, the researchers hypothesized that this difference might be because people typically are more familiar with white plates, and we find things that we’re familiar with to be comforting and preferable.
It’s clear that color has a bigger influence on our perceptions than previously assumed. Knowing this, I can’t help but imagine a scene in which people request specific mug colors to match or accentuate their coffee’s taste: “I’d like a short vanilla latte with a little bit of room, in a white mug, please…”
* The researchers were very careful to hold constant other factors known to alter our perception of coffee taste (like room temperature, lighting and cup quality), during their experiments.
- G. H. Van Doorn, D. Wuillemin, C. Spence, Does the colour of the mug influence the taste of the coffee? Flavour. 3, 10 (2014).
- P. C. Stewart, E. Goss, Plate shape and colour interact to influence taste and quality judgments. Flavour. 2, 27 (2013).