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Why chips taste better when you can hear the sound of their crunch

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A curious paper about how the taste of Pringles chips can be altered by sound effects is the starting point for a fascinating New Yorker story on the unlikely things that can affect our experience of flavor.

The piece details the work of Charles Spence, a professor of experimental psychology at Oxford University who has conducted studies showing that people's perceptions of flavor and taste are influenced by how food looks — and even how it sounds.

For the Pringles experiment, Spence had 20 participants eat chips while wearing headphones. He flooded their ears with crunching sounds at different volume levels and frequencies. Although the chips were all identical, those eating while listening to louder, high-pitched crunches actually perceived their chips as fresher and crisper.

That's only the beginning of Spence's work, New Yorker contributor Nicola Twilley writes:

Along the way, Spence has found that a strawberry-flavored mousse tastes ten per cent sweeter when served from a white container rather than a black one; that coffee tastes nearly twice as intense but only two-thirds as sweet when it is drunk from a white mug rather than a clear glass one; that adding two and a half ounces to the weight of a plastic yogurt container makes the yogurt seem about twenty-five per cent more filling, and that bittersweet toffee tastes ten per cent more bitter if it is eaten while you’re listening to low-pitched music.

Spence's findings reminded me of the work of Cornell professor Brian Wansink, who has been studying how people's environments impact how and what they eat. In his "bottomless bowls" study, he showed that people will keep guzzling down soup as long as their bowls are automatically refilled. For his "bad popcorn" study, he demonstrated that people will gobble up stale and unpalatable food so long as it's presented to them in huge quantities.

This line of research has many public health implications, as you can imagine. It suggests that environments carefully designed for health — from the colors and size of our food packaging to the sounds we listen to while eating — can nudge people in the direction of healthier behaviors.

You can read the whole story here.