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Does temperature affect the way food tastes?

It’s hard to imagine Desperate Dan’s famous cow pie without steam bellowing from its crust or a vindaloo without an accompanying glass of lager.

The implication being that piping hot food increases the diner’s eating enjoyment.

However, over the years, this has been proven, to be largely untrue. Research into ‘sensory perception’ confirms that the temperature of food served has a major effect on the way that the meal is enjoyed.

In 2005 professor Karel Talavera Perez, at Leuven University, Belgium, discovered that our perception of taste actually decreases as the temperature of the food rises. According to Perez, he believes that this is due to a ‘built in’ safety mechanism of our taste nerves. With very hot food, be believes, the burning sensation we experience is designed to warn us of the danger of hurting ourselves.

Over the years, there have been many studies into how heat affects our perception of taste. Ice cream, for example, is unpalatable when warm but delicious when cold, beer becomes increasingly bitter when warm unlike ham that tastes more savoury.

No-one really knows the answer why but clearly the sensory nerves in the tongue play a major role.

In 1999, a study found that exposing the tongue to different temperatures creates different tastes. For example, exposing the front of the tongue, where the chorda tympani nerve is located, to cold then hot, creates a sweet taste, whereas the opposite is true if the temperatures are reversed.

A further survey then went on to look at accompanying drinks. This found that the temperature of drinks taken with meals also had an influence on the enjoyment of the meal. For example, drinking cold liquid before a hot meal can increase the perception of sweetness.

This, claims the study, could be why North Americans have a propensity for sweet food as they tend to drink iced water or cold beverages with their meal whereas European and Asian diners prefer drinks to be served at room temperature or accompanied by hot tea / coffee.

Professor Charles Spence, author of the book, ‘the perfect meal, the multisensory science of food and dining’ has also theorised that we can tell whether a drink is hot or cold simply by hearing it being poured. As someone who advises the likes of PepsiCo and Unilever (as well as Heston Blumenthal) Professor Spence is clearly someone worth listening to.

So, can we apply some of these ideas to our hospitality business?

For example, he found that playing higher pitched music to dining guests enhances sweetness while lower pitched and brassy sounds increases bitterness. He reinforces this theory with a practical example from Haagen Daz ice cream, who recently produced an ice cream musical concerto to download while their ice cream softened.

How cool is that?

Of course, none of this is new. Applying the principles of sensory perception to consumer marketing has been going on for years. In America in the 1930’s marketing influencer, Louis Cheskin came up with phrase ‘sensation transference’. His many recommendations included changing the colour of margarine from its native white to artificial yellow in order to simulate butter.

When was the last time you saw white margarine in the supermarket?

While Heston Blumenthal takes ‘sensory transition’ to new levels, chefs and restaurateurs have long known that the serving temperature of food has a direct link to the taste of the meal. Very hot food inhibits the taste sensation and creates a burning feeling, warning us of danger (good for a cold drink upsell) while colder food encourages us to eat sweet foods, such as a delicious ice cream dessert.

Time to check the weather forecast?