How color, smell and even sound impact the flavor of food

How food tastes is not just determined by its ingredients. At a research kitchen in London, a psychology professor and a top chef are trying to see how big a role perception plays in flavor.

The promotional video for Kitchen Theory, a combined London restaurant and food lab, sounds like a game show. And it is. Call it the spoon game.

Four spoons. Four colored flavor balls. Oxford University psychology professor Charles Spence makes you pick which color you think will provide which taste. 


"There's no right answers," Spence told CBS News correspondent Mark Phillips.  

No right answers, but you'd be surprised at the number of people who give the same answer. The proof is in the tasting. 

To Phillips, the green ball suggested a sour taste, while he expected the red to taste sweet. It turned out three-quarters of people associate the same colors with the same tastes and line the spoons up the same way.

So why is that useful? Well, it may make a difference if you're trying to get people to eat less sugar.

"If you're thinking about food and beverage companies who maybe wanting to reduce the sugar in some of their drinks—" Spence started.

"Just make it red," Phillips said.


If you've passed the spoon test with, yes, flying colors, try the jelly bean test with a nose clamp. The game here is to taste the bean with the nose clamp on – and then off. 

"Um, lemony," Phillips said.

"This retronasal smell whenever you swallow— a little pulse of volatile, rich air comes out — that's where most of the taste really resides," Spence said.

"What the taste buds on my tongue were telling me was what you call taste. When I took the clip off, and got the whole hoo-ha of the thing, that's flavor?" Phillips said.

"Yeah. What people colloquially call taste," Spence said.

That matters, for example, with airplane food. The dry cabin air and low pressure means that you don't get the full flavor. Which is why 20 to 30 percent more salt and sugar needs to be added to produce the same taste as on the ground.

Appreciating the effect environment can have on taste — and even experimenting with bringing that environment to the table — is why airlines and food producers pay for the kind of research done here. 

What if you're trying to get people to eat more sustainable food? In this case, something which has been swarming our coastlines, but which you probably would never have thought of putting on your plate: jellyfish.

It's a dish enhanced by adding a seaside soundtrack.

Chef Jozef Youssef does a mean marinated jellyfish. Cue the music. It may not be at the top of everybody's list. But dress it up with a table-top projection of ocean waves and add ocean sounds through the headphones and it might seem more appealing.

"All this helps with kind of getting them to that place where they're excited about trying something new, excited about trying something different," Youssef said.

"I tell you, this would be good enough without the music, but it's — I see your point," Phillips said.

The point is that as we move forward in what we eat, presentation counts perhaps like never before.