Researchers come up with rather clever sleights of hand in the name of investigating things, especially in the realm of food perception.
Want to know if the first bite of something can set the tone for subsequent eating? Want to know if that first bite influences the perception of subsequent bites? Want to investigate the ways in which it’s possible to influence someone’s eating experience just by establishing particular expectations? Just make a cylinder of chocolate ice cream (but of course?!) and use theobromine (the bitter compound found in cacao) to change the intensity of bitterness encountered as research participants eat their way down the cylinder. Slightly ingenious, right?
The researchers made each ice cream cylinder so that it could be consumed in six bites, but then they varied the levels of bitterness that would be experienced from bite to bite. For example, in one condition, the first two bites of the ice cream cylinder had a low bitterness intensity, the second two bites had a high bitterness intensity, and the third two bites had a low bitterness intensity again. Some cylinders had low bitterness intensity all the way through, some had high all the way through, some had a mixture of low and high, and some had an averaged bitterness intensity.
The researchers found that when the first bites had low bitterness intensity, that particular ice cream cylinder was perceived as less bitter overall, and ratings of maximum bitterness intensity were reduced. So low bitterness in the initial bites means the item is perceived as less bitter overall than it otherwise would be, and high bitterness in the initial bites means the item is perceived as more bitter overall than it otherwise would be.
I’m not sure, however, of how to apply this sleight of hand in potentially useful or practical ways in just everyday life. The next time you make a grapefruit tart and the filling somehow ends up being really bitter, just make some more filling that’s sweeter and pour it on top and instruct eaters to just take a bit off the uppermost extremities for their first mouthful? Hmm, well… nonetheless, it’s interesting to know a little bit more about the extent to which our expectations can influence subsequent experiences. So perhaps don’t apologise in advance for the bitterness of your hypothetical grapefruit tart – just employ some artful deception and tell the eaters how very sweet it is, and hope that their expectations will do the hard work of making that tart deliciously palatable.
Also if you want the inside edge on replicating that research group’s assuredly delicious research ice cream, here’s the ingredients list. Everyone loves research ice cream.
Water (33.7% by weight)
40% cream (24%)
Condensed skim milk (22%)
Cocoa powder (2%)
Glucose syrup (1.5%)
Sugared egg yolk (1%)
Vanilla flavour (0.5%)
Guar gum (0.1%)
… plus as much theobromine as you personally see fit, of course.