For athletes and fans, winning makes lots of things seem better. That includes the taste of their favorite foods, according to research demonstrating how our emotions alter taste perception.
The results come from a study of hockey fans celebrating wins or licking wounds after losses, who were then asked to rate different ice cream flavors. The scientists identified differences in how specific tastes were experienced when emotions changed, results that may hold a clue to the origins of emotional eating disorders.
Many studies have shown that taste preferences aren't entirely set by our genes but can change due to biological factors, like aging, or environmental factors, such as exposure to pathogens or specific chemicals, like toothpaste. Robin Dando, who heads a taste physiology lab at Cornell University, wanted to see how real world influences like day-to-day emotions effected our taste perception.
Dando had trouble producing a range of genuine emotions in the lab, so he took his study to Cornell's Lynah Rink, where fans of the Big Red ice hockey team experience the victorious thrills and agonizing defeats common among sports enthusiasts across the world.
“A sporting event offers a real-world way to induce different moods,” he says. “People live and die when their teams win or lose, and certainly at Cornell the sport that produces that kind of passion has to be hockey.”
During the 2013-14 men's hockey season, Dando and co-author Corinna Noel corralled fans just after the conclusion of each game. They asked about each fan's level of satisfaction with the game result, since wins and losses don't always tell the entire story. For instance, people who'd expected a blowout and weren't all that happy with an ill-played victory would need to be classified correctly.
The researchers then distributed the same two kinds of ice cream and asked people to report how much they liked each flavor, as well as the specific taste sensations they experienced. The two flavors included one that almost everyone liked (salted caramel pretzel) and one that people thought was just OK (lemon/lime sorbet).
After sampling these treats, participants used a paper survey to describe the intensity of their component flavors, such as sweet, salty, bitter, savory, sour and creaminess—a surrogate term for fatty taste sensations. They also reported an overall ranking of the food's hedonic value, which is defined as the pleasure one gets from eating something.
Based on data from 550 fans, the scientists found that positive emotions correlated with enhanced sweet intensities and lessened sour flavors. The negative emotions associated with a loss, on the other hand, tended to decrease sweet taste and boost sour flavors. Results from a tie came in, as one might expect, in the middle.
“It's a cliché and the headline writes itself, but what we found is that victory really does taste sweet,” says Dando, who reports the results in a paper to be published in the journal Appetite.
Unhappy fans really penalized the citrus sorbet flavor, he adds: “The salted caramel pretzel flavor they often liked whether they won or lost, but the other they weren't so generous with. That kind of makes us wonder if this means that at times when you're not so happy in life, you have to go for the most delicious foods. You just can't eat that apple, you've got to go for the ice cream. Maybe this is the idea of comfort food.”
As you might expect, many of the delicacies labeled as comfort foods aren't the best in terms of nutrition. They are often high in carbohydrates, sugar and fat and can pose health risks when eaten in excess. The possible link between excessive consumption of these foods and emotional eating makes Dando think future taste research could help.
“Obviously this nation has serious problems with diseases of consumption like obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure,” he says. “I think it's interesting to think that there may be a link to our senses here. Our sense of taste may be being fooled a little and end up pushing us into things that we shouldn't be eating.”