Context and taste - a complex relation

The same food doesn't always taste the same

Many factors influence the complex process by which the brain decides whether or not it likes a certain taste. For instance, most people have had the experience that the same wine they enjoyed drinking in a holiday atmosphere or in the company of friends, tasted only half as good when they drank it alone at home. Indeed, ESN expert Margrethe Hersleth from the Norwegian Research Institute Matforsk says that "…the context in which a wine is consumed may have as much influence on consumer acceptance and liking as its objective sensory attributes."


Nevertheless, most wine studies focus only on the sensory properties and their relation to the quality of the grapes or to various production procedures.

The Norwegian researchers chose a different approach. To find out if and to what degree preference ratings for wines may change from one situation to another and how these factors relate to different sensory attributes of the wines, they served a number of wines in four different testing conditions. Either the consumers tasted the wines alone in sober sensory booths or they were in the company of other consumers in a pleasantly decorated reception room with congenial background music. In both settings the wines were served either with or without food - crackers or tortilla chips with mild dips or salsa. In none of the conditions were the consumers allowed to talk about the wines.

Test results showed that context variables were about as important to reported preference as the enological variables (malolactic fermentation, oak contact, sugar addition). Hersleth concludes that, at least in the case of wine, "… the situation in which the wine is consumed has an extremely important impact on consumer's acceptance. "However, this effect is not the same for all types of wine. In the presented study, serving food with wine had a positive effect on the wine samples with more buttery flavour (after malolactic fermentation), while the other wines tended not to be so much influenced by this contextual factor.

One important factor contributing to these results seems to be the consumers' degree of familiarity with a product. The Matforsk researchers have come to this conclusion through the results of a similar study on cheese. Different varieties of cheese commonly eaten in Norway were tested in three diverse locations: In a lab, at a central location, and at home. The reported preferences were very stable in all three locations. Margrethe Hersleth thinks there well may be another factor at play "… the ambience of the testing environment is worth considering. Contextual factors certainly are more important in a natural situation as compared to an artificial lab setting."

In any case knowledge about the possible interrelations of sensory perception and context may be of great importance as much for developing marketing strategies as for product development projects. Hersleth states that "If a food or beverage company is able to develop a product that is resistant to the influence of different contextual factors this may be an important selling advantage."



Margrethe Hersleth
Norwegian Food Research Institute


Photo:© misaleva -