Does a Good Review Make the Food Taste Better?

image via Foodists

We know that food tastes better when it’s eaten outside. Or when it’s free. Or when one of our kids cooks it for us.
What about a meal in a restaurant that’s gotten rave reviews? Researchers who study the science of taste tell us that our expectations actually exert a kind of strange magic on our taste buds that can truly alter our sensory perceptions.

Your taste in music or art is subjective, but those opinions come after you’ve sensed it. Your eyes are seeing a color or a shape and your ears are taking in the tones—they do the sensing before your brain chimes in with its opinion. The sensations themselves are unjudged; there is nothing intrinsically good or bad about them.

Taste is different.
It is good or bad: nutrition or poison; swallow or spit. Taste is survival.

It’s more than the sum of the sensory data.
Your tongue identifies hot or cold, salty or sour, sweet or savory, but the survival mechanism requires your brain to interpret the data: ingest or reject? Taste is created only when the brain takes the sensory data from the taste buds, tosses in data from the other four senses, and views it all through the lens of experiential and psychological factors.

Our expectations play right into the psychological factors, sometimes even refracting the sensory input in defiance of reality.
You’ve probably seen some of the classic studies: the young children who insist the hamburger in McDonald’s packaging tastes better than the no-name burger, or the wine drinkers who show a marked preference for the bottle with an expensive label. The newest studies using MRIs and brain mapping techniques confirm it—your expectations really are defining what you taste. That Michelin star or Zagat 27 score will light up your brain when you sit down to dinner, giving it a head start in delicious before the first bite (You’ll have to trust me on the technical details of this one- I think we’ve had enough neuroscience for one day. Or else read the studies cited below).

Eating is a multisensory experience taking into account genetics and gender, historical and cultural influences, mood, emotions, context, and hunger. The empirical scores of a restaurant review can shape the experience, but no two people can ever truly taste the same thing. Like good art or music, good food is subjective.
Of course food lovers already know this.

Studies referenced:
Effects of Fast Food Branding on Young Children’s Taste Preferences from the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine;

The Interactive Effect of Cultural Symbols and Human Values on Taste Evaluation from the Journal of Consumer Research;

various studies from Alfredo Fontanini at the Neuroscience Lab at Stonybrook University.


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