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Food rituals tickle your taste buds

Remember those Reese's Peanut Buttercup ads? They showed people performing a series of "rituals" before eating the candy, suggesting that because of this, it would taste so much better. Well, according to researchers, this might not be far from the truth.

A study published in the journal Psychological Science reveals that performing rituals before we eat can change the taste and perception of our food.

Researchers from the University of Minnesota did four experiments to test the idea that ritualistic behavior before eating enhances the pleasure of consumption.

A variety of foods were taste-tested in the experiment, including chocolate, lemonade and carrots.

Kathleen Vohs of the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota, the leader of this study, says she used her own rituals as inspiration for this experiment.

She says:

"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.

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."

The first experiment of the study involved one group of participants eating a piece of chocolate after being given strict instructions on how to eat it.

The instructions were: "Without unwrapping the chocolate bar, break it in half. Unwrap half of the bar and eat it. Then, unwrap the other half and eat it."

The other group were asked simply to relax for a short period of time, then eat the chocolate in whatever manner they wanted to.

The group who had followed the rituals "rated the chocolate more highly, savored it more, and were willing to pay more for the chocolate" compared with the other group

Taste improved by strict rituals, not just "random gestures"

The second experiment confirmed in more detail that random gestures do not boost consumption compared with ritualistic gestures. Only fixed behavior appears to change our perception of food, the researchers say.

The third experiment, which included participants watching others make lemonade and then tasting it, revealed that someone who performs the ritual themselves will benefit more from consumption than watching someone else perform the ritual.

Effect of delayed gratification

This experiment also showed that those who left a longer delay between the ritual and consumption of the food reported an improved taste, even when eating more bland-tasting food, such as carrots.

According to the researchers, the fourth experiment confirmed that performing rituals before food enhances the enjoyment of consumption due to the greater involvement in the experience.

Previous studies have also pointed to a link between psychology and how we appreciate our food. Research from John Hopkins University, Maryland, suggests that if we work hard to get our food, we appreciate it more and it tastes better.

In this most recent study, the researchers say that although these rituals are small and simple, this research could be adapted to more important situations.

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

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