Rituals Make Our Food More Flavorful – NYTimes.com

Do you always fold a New York slice in all its oily glory? Is a whole lobster best relished in this order: legs, claws then succulent tail? Do you eat Oreos middle first? Or dunked in milk?

Far from being mere quirks of personality, rituals like these may actually enhance how much people savor what they eat or drink, new research shows. Flavor is intensified. The meal is enjoyed more. It may be one reason why birthday cake is savored more than the stumbled-upon 4 p.m. brownie, because of the singing and candle blowing that precedes it.

The researchers found that even simple rituals, which they defined as “a series of behaviors that are seemingly irrelevant to the act that follows,” like scraping wooden chopsticks together or tapping a soda can before pulling the tab, raised participants’ interest in what they subsequently ate or drank. And rituals appeared capable of enhancing the enjoyment not just of treats like chocolate or lemonade but even baby carrots.

Culinary rituals have long been studied by anthropologists and sociologists. But this study, a series of four experiments published recently online in Psychological Science, actually tested the notion that ritualized gestures enhance ensuing consumption. The experiments were carried out at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and Harvard University.

For the first experiment, 52 students were randomly assigned to two groups. In one group, participants were asked to break a chocolate bar in half, wrapper and all, then to open one of the halves and eat it, followed by unwrapping the remaining half and eating that. The other group relaxed for a bit then ate the bar.

The camp that followed the two-step ritual rated their pleasure higher, and the chocolate more flavorful, than those who just ate their bars. They also said they would be willing to pay 25 cents more, on average, for the bar and took longer to savor it.

The second experiment, of 105 students, investigated whether any old movement had positive effects compared with another ritual devised by the researchers. This time lowly carrots, rather than chocolate, were used.

Before eating a carrot, some of the students always performed a standard ritual, which involved knocking twice before grabbing a bag of baby carrots, followed by another two knocks, taking a deep breath, and eating a carrot. Others performed that sequence only once, instead performing other gestures like turning their heads, snapping their fingers and clenching their fists.

To see if waiting would heighten anticipation for a four-calorie root crop, some students had to wait between carrot No. 2 and No. 3. Others didn’t. Incredibly, repeating the knocking-breathing ritual heightened subjects’ anticipation of a mini carrot.

The rituals concocted by researchers were silly-looking and deliberately irrelevant to the eating or drinking that followed, but nevertheless proved powerful. “Compared to just doing random gestures, doing nice systematic gestures brings them into a mindset that they are performing a ritual, and that led participants to enjoy carrots more than they would otherwise,” said Kathleen Vohs, the lead author of the paper and a marketing professor at the University of Minnesota.

Another experiment found that watching someone perform a ritual, say removing the wrapping on a wine bottle and uncorking it, does not heighten a spectator’s relish of their glass of zinfandel — only the pleasure of the bottle uncorker is enhanced. For the study, researchers had people mix lemonade and found that the act enhanced enjoyment for a drink mixer. But people who watched someone else prepare lemonade did not find the drink as flavorful.

A final experiment asked students how fun or interesting eating the chocolate was, confirmed that one reason food rituals enhance flavor and enjoyment is their ability to focus people’s interest on the ensuing consumption. The researchers called this focus “involvement.”

The study’s findings raise intriguing possibilities. Could rituals make often-maligned vegetables like broccoli worth savoring? Will my preschooler savor green beans if I start framing the border of his plate with them or if we sing a ditty in their honor before digging in?

“I love the concept that rituals increase the ability to savor food,” said Susan Albers, a psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic Family Health Center in Wooster, Ohio, who specializes in eating behavior, adding, “This study has great potential to help people create rituals and to savor food and choose healthier foods.”

Dr. Albers cited one of her clients, a woman who peeled an apple with a knife in a circular fashion — a technique she had learned from her mother as a child. “There’s a meditative way that she peels it, so by the end, she’s craving that apple,” she explained.

Dr. Albers, the author of “Eating Mindfully,” noted that rituals may also help in portion control, something the University of Minnesota researchers did not address in their experiments. She noted that in a small randomized controlled trial at the University of Texas in Austin, researchers found that teaching restaurant diners to focus on awareness of hunger and taste, along with other strategies, was effective at promoting weight management. “When you savor food you enjoy it more, and sometimes you eat less,” she said.

Certainly not all eating experiences will improve with a few knocks on a table and deep breaths. Rituals may augment flavor, but there’s a potential downside, the researchers caution. For some eaters, they wrote, “boosting the flavor of some tastes may be offputting.”

Here’s to hoping more green-beany beans won’t be one of them.

via Rituals Make Our Food More Flavorful – NYTimes.com.

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