If you have been eating alone, you may discover that your food tastes bland.
Scientists have now discovered a way to ensure that it always tastes better – and it involves tricking your brain into thinking you’re not alone at all.
Link between taste and companionship
It has already been discovered that eating with companions, rather than alone, will make food taste better. This is known as the ‘social facilitation of taste’ and is a well-documented phenomenon.
But what can we do to help in those situations when you must eat alone? Researchers set out to find the answer to this question through a series of experiments designed to measure food taste.
Their findings, which were published in the journal Physiology & Behaviour, could be especially helpful to the elderly. It has been shown that those who are lonely later in life often start to eat less, which leads to a dramatic decline in health.
So, how do you do it? The short answer is that you can either look into a mirror or look at a photograph while you eat. The long answer is a little more complicated, as anyone who works in a food research and development job will expect!
New study into minimum
The study was carried out by a team from Nagoya University in Japan. Dr Ryuzaburo Nakata discussed the aims of their research: "We wanted to find out what the minimum requirement is for the social facilitation of eating. Does another person have to actually be physically present, or is information suggesting the presence of others sufficient?”
In order to test this theory, the researchers started out with a group of 16 adults. They were asked to record their enjoyment when eating alone in front of a mirror, and when eating in front of a monitor which showed an image of a wall. They all ate salted or caramel popcorn and were between the ages of 65 and 74.
They quickly found that those who saw themselves in the mirror rated their enjoyment of the food more highly compared to when they were watching the monitor. Sweetness improved by 25%, goodness by 21%, and quality by 12%.
The researchers then took the experiment another step further. This time, instead of a mirror, they used simply a photograph of the person taking part in the experiment. They were looking at a photograph of themselves – and it still helped to increase the appeal of the food and caused them to eat more.
Could this new research have implications for new product development? Perhaps we could see the invention of false companions which make it easier to enjoy food while alone! While this might not be fully necessary as a step, it’s certainly possible that adding mirrors into the rooms of those dining alone, or hanging portraits of themselves, will make a difference.
"Studies have shown that for older adults, enjoying food is associated with quality of life, and frequently eating alone is associated with depression and loss of appetite,” said co-author Dr Nobuyuki Kawai. "Our findings therefore suggest a possible approach to improving the appeal of food, and quality of life, for older people who do not have company when they eat for example, those who have suffered loss or are far away from their loved ones."
The next step may well be to repeat the experiment on a larger scale, and perhaps with even more options. Does looking at a photograph of someone else help as well? How about dining alone but in a cafeteria with others? These questions still need to be answered.