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Small Rituals Before Eating Can Make Food More Enjoyable: A Study

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Jul 23, 2013 09:34 AM EDT
Woman Eating
According to a new study, scientists have come to a better understanding of the genes involved in taste perception and food preferences, which they say can lead to personalized nutrition plans effective not just in weight loss but in avoiding diseases such as cancer, depression, and hypertension. (Photo : Creative Commons via Flickr/ Orofacial)

How we view our food -- a reality often reflected in small, daily rituals performed right before chowing down -- may actually change our perception of the food we eat.

Published in the journal Psychological Science, the study is the result of several experiments.

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In one, the researchers, led by psychological scientist Kathlee Vohs of the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota, had participants eat a piece of chocolate following a detailed set of instruction, including breaking it half before unwrapping each half, eating as they went.

Other participants were simply told to relax for a short time and then eat the chocolate bar in any way they liked.

The results showed that those who performed the "ritual" rated the chocolate more highly, savored it more and were willing even to pay more for the chocolate than the other group.

These results, the scientists argue, are evidence that even short, fabricated rituals can produce real effects.

"Whenever I order an espresso, I take a sugar packet and shake it, open the packet and pour a teeny bit of sugar in, and then taste," Vohs said in a press release. "It's never enough sugar, so I then pour about half of the packet in. The thing is, this isn't a functional ritual, I should just skip right to pouring in half the packet."

A second experiment only reinforced these findings by showing that random movements don't produce a more enjoyable eating experience, but rather repeated, episodic and fixed behaviors are what actually change our food perception.

The data revealed, too, that a longer delay between ritual and consumption bolstered these effects, even with a arguably neutral food like carrots. As a result, the researchers determined that the anticipation of eating carrots following a ritual actually improved their subjective taste.

In the final two studies, Vohs and colleagues showed that personal involvement in the ritual is paramount. Watching someone else methodically mix lemonade, they concluded, doesn't make it taste any better. Furthermore, they found that "intrinsic interest" -- the fact that rituals draw people into what they are doing -- is what accounts for the positive effects that rituals have on eating experiences.

Applying these findings elsewhere, Vohs wonders if perhaps they could be used to, for example, promote healing.

"We are thinking of getting patients to perform rituals before a surgery and then measuring their pain post-operatively and how fast they heal," she explained.

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