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The Impact of Sound on What We Eat

The Lempert Report: Researchers looked at how auditory cues influence taste.

Can sound impact what we eat? No, I’m not talking about the music that plays in the background of our supermarkets and restaurants. I’m talking about a study that a group of U.K. researchers, including Charles Spence, conducted to see if manipulating the pitch of the background auditory stimulation had any effect on the taste of food. 

The study is called A Bittersweet Symphony, and was published in Food Quality and Preference. 

The participants in the study evaluated four pieces of cinder toffee while listening to two auditory soundtracks, presented in a random order. One soundtrack was designed to be more cross-modally congruent with a bitter-tasting food, whereas the other soundtrack was designed to be more congruent with a sweet-tasting food. 

The participants rated each sample using three computer-based line scales. One scale was anchored with the words "bitter" and "sweet." The second scale required participants to localize the taste or flavor perception elicited by the food, at the front or the back of their mouths. The third scale involved participants giving a hedonic evaluation of the foodstuff. 

The cinder toffee samples that were tasted while listening to the presumptively "bitter" soundtrack were rated as tasting significantly more bitter than when exactly the same foodstuff was evaluated while listening to the "sweet" soundtrack. 

These results, according to the study authors, provide the first convincing empirical demonstration that the cross-modal congruency of a background soundtrack can be used to modify the taste (and presumably also the flavor) of a foodstuff.

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