What You See Is What You Taste, Says Scientist

Understanding how the eyes can influence flavor perception may someday help thwart even the most finicky eaters. (Credit: Scott Bauer, USDA)

When it comes to tasting, what you see is not always what you get. Speaking at the National Meeting of the American Chemical Society, Terry E. Acree, Ph.D., announced his findings that the appearance of foods and drinks can make people “see” flavors before they actually taste anything, a phenomenon that can influence their flavor experiences, food likes, and dislikes. Agee is hopeful that further understanding of how the eyes factor into flavor perception can lead to the creation of healthy foods that will appeal to the pickiest of eaters.

The Eyes Have It

Traditionally, scientists have thought the tongue, nose, and brain dominated how people experience the flavors of the food, but Acree’s work reveals how the visual can forcefully come into play. “Years ago, taste was a table with two legs—taste and odor,” said Acree, who is with Cornell University’s Department of Food Science.

“Now we are beginning to understand that flavor depends on parts of the brain that involve taste, odor, touch and vision. The sum total of these signals, plus our emotions and past experiences, result in perception of flavors, and determine whether we like or dislike specific foods.”

Winning by a Nose

It’s well known that smell can override a person’s taste buds. Acree cited one popular experiment in which two groups of volunteers were asked to have a sip of plain water after smelling different foods. One group smelled sweet things like caramel and strawberries, while the other smelled non-sweet foods like bread, meat, or fish. For the sweet-smelling group, the plain water tasted sweet. But the water wasn’t sweet at all for the other group. (Related: Secrets of Smell: Different Nose Parts for Stinky, Sweet.)

When a glass of white wine was tinted red, people's eyes changed how they tasted the wine. The natural chemicals that give merlots and cabernets their flavors came to the front. (Credit: André Karwath, Wikimedia Commons)
When a glass of white wine was tinted red, people’s eyes changed how they tasted the wine. The natural chemicals that give merlots and cabernets their flavors came to the front. (Credit: André Karwath, Wikimedia Commons)

Bottle of Red? Bottle of White?

Acree described how people’s eyes can deceive them when it comes to different foods and beverages. In his talk, he described how looking at a glass of wine before smelling or tasting it affects how people experience the wine’s flavors.

Sauvignon Blanc, a popular white wine, has lots of flavors derived from natural chemicals. When people drink it, they may taste banana, passion fruit, bell pepper, and even a flinty, mineral taste. But if a flavorless food coloring is added to the Sauvignon Blanc to turn it a deep red, people’s taste perceptions change. They taste flavors associated with merlots or cabernets, wines known for their deep red colors.

Your Lying Eyes

While the role of the eyes is important, it does not dominate all of a person’s flavor perceptions. Acree pointed out that in different circumstances, other senses and parts of the brain can trump visual stimuli. For instance, certain foods—like hashes, chilies, and stews—can look like “vomit or feces” said Acree. But lots of people still eat (and enjoy!) these kinds of foods despite their unappetizing looks. So something beside the eyes is at work.

Acree posits a few different explanations. One is a person’s memory: If a person has strong, positive feelings associated with these foods, that pleasant past experience can trump the yucky-looking visual on the plate. Another explanation Acree puts forward is that people have a strong desire for new experiences and that input from the brain and nose may override the eyes in these situations.

By getting to the heart of how people’s eyes, nose, brain, and tongue interact when eating, Acree believes that eventually we’ll be able to develop healthy foods that are more appealing to a broader range of people—especially kids and picky adults.

Human Journey

Meet the Author
Focusing on content that entertains, astounds, and informs, Amy Briggs is freelance writer and former senior editor with National Geographic Books . The author of National Geographic Angry Birds Space, Briggs worked closely with National Geographic NewsWatch's David Braun on National Geographic Tales of the Weird. Excited by all things trivial, odd, and just unusual, she lives in Virginia with her family.