Coke and Taste: Image is Everything

Over at Wired, Jonah Lehrer riffs about the fallibility of our sense of taste after reading a recent post of Marion Nestle’s entitled Corn Syrup Actually Isn’t the Same as Table Sugar*.

His premise is this:

(My taste for) Mexican Coke appears to be a cognitive illusion.

This is quite the stunning confession on the face of it, but he backs it up with science, referring to a scientific recreation of the Pepsi Challenge, with wires attached to heads and metrics gathered. The results were a bit staggering.

Each person swallowed sips of cola from a plastic tube while their brain was being scanned. When Coke and Pepsi were offered unlabeled, the subjects showed no measurable preference for either brand. Most of the time, they couldn’t even tell the two colas apart. But Montague’s second observation was more surprising: subjects overwhelmingly preferred drinks that were labeled as Coke, no matter what cola was actually delivered through the tubes. In other words, brand trumped taste. We cared more about the logo than the actual product.

Think about this for a moment – we care about the image of food more than the food itself. The expectation of an image/ideal of the food shapes the way we perceive said food.

Let’s move this out of the realm of cola’s for a moment, and how it works in food media. W. Kyle Simmons , Alex Martin, and Lawrence W. Barsalou, wrote a paper in 2005 whose basic premise was this:

…food pictures activated the right insula/operculum and the left orbitofrontal cortex, both gustatory processing areas. Food pictures also activated regions of visual cortex that represent object shape. Together these areas contribute to a distributed neural circuit that represents food knowledge. Not only does this circuit become active during the tasting of actual foods, it also becomes active while viewing food pictures. Via the process of pattern completion, food pictures activate gustatory regions of the circuit to produce conceptual inferences about taste.

So, from a brain’s perspective the image of food is akin to the consumption of food. Tying this in with Lehrer’s piece, it seems as And if we have a bias towards or against that food, we react to that bias in the brain. If we perceive Coke as better than Pepsi, when we drink a cola, and are told it’s Coke, our brain consumes it as if it is Coke, regardless of whether it is or not.

Now, let’s bring the food media into this – Whether you read this blog, the food section of your newspaper, or Saveur, or watch the Food Network religiously, you process these sites, pictures, and shows with a subconscious understanding that we have an insight to food that you may not possess. Our ability to convey that insight affects your perception of that food, regardless of whether you’ve had that food before or not. If you have a trust in Saveur, and they say that John Doe’s Restaurant down the street from you makes the world’s best Turkey Sandwich, whenever you have that sandwich, Saveur’s perception will affect your own, often for the positive. This happens all. the. time. Whether you realize it or not.

This is also one of the reasons why food bloggers focus on taking better food pictures. The image the convey of the food that they create conveys their trust-worthiness and knowledge about said food. The better the pictures, the more apt you are to believe that they know what they are doing. An unappetizing picture means your brain will believe their dish was unappetizing, and thus, you may (subconsciously) believe them to be less knowledgeable about food.

Tangentially related is this: Wine, beer, and whiskey tasters should know the power of image. It’s one of the reasons why, when leading a group of individuals in tasting, the experienced taster will keep their damned mouths shut when exploring the taste of a Merlot, a Porter, or Irish Whiskey. Because as soon as they say that “There’s an undercurrent of chocolate”, many people in the group will soon taste “chocolate” and their impression of that drink will be based on their preference for chocolate. The better guides out there let the consumers find the tastes for themselves. Poor tasters tell you what to expect.

So what does this all mean? Invariably, you’ll fall for this again. I wouldn’t call it a trick per se, but it IS an influence upon your own taste in food. The more faith you have in certain media, whether it’s the icon status of the marketing of Coke, or whether we read Gastronomica only, understand that our faith in food media affects how we consume food.

And that sometimes, it’s worth exploring food outside of our faith.

*Note: What Dr. Nestle has to say here is quite important from a biochemical point of view, and I do wish to talk about this at some point. Just not today