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Sweet as Pie?–Food Memories and Their Inaccuracies

orange-custard-_7Think back to your favorite food.  Is it sweet?  How sweet?  Do you think that you could pick this prized food out of a lineup of nine different versions of this food of varying sweetness, texture, and aroma?  Maybe you think you have a discerning palate that will assist your accuracy, despite the fact that you forgot to actually take note of these factors while eating.  A recent study examines food memory and our accuracy at recalling certain sensory aspects of food that many of us take for granted when we eat.  Findings suggest we may not remember all the aspects of our favorite food as accurately as we might presume.

Food memory is a complex area of study that psychologists still struggle to understand.  There have been a variety of studies examining memory about certain aspects of foods.   Researchers have examined foods ranging from orange juice to yogurt, and examined sensory aspects such as bitterness to thickness.  These results have not all supported one clear way people remember aspects of food, as people report certain food descriptors more accurately than others depending on the food.

Morin-Audebrand et al. (2009) furthered studies on the accuracy of memory for different food aspects, asking participants to compare their memory of a cherry custard they ate with twelve samples (three of which was the original).  The study looked at three aspects of sensory memory within the same food item: taste, texture, and aroma.  Morin-Audebrand et al. (2009)’s study examined incidental learning of food, examining what participants remembered about a custard they were not warned they would need to later recall.  Participants instead were told to record their hunger throughout the study, eating a lunch consisting of simple foods and cherry custard and take note of their hunger.  To ensure everyone ate the dessert, experimenters asked that participants were sure to eat all the food, to assist their supposed observation of participant hunger through the day.

The next day, participants returned and were unexpectedly presented with a variety of memory tests about the custard.  First, participants received a sample of the custard from the day before and nine distractor samples.  The nine samples included three of varying sweetness, three of varying thickness, and three of varying cherry aroma to manipulate the sensory aspects of the custard.  Eaters from the day before were asked to say if they believed they had tried the custards the day before.  These lucky participants then tasted ten samples (nine distractors and one of the original custard) and were told to indicate if the samples were less, equally, or more intense than the original custard in terms of sweetness, thickness, and aroma.  The tasters were told to rate the intensity of the different sensory attributes in order to gauge if how accurately they recalled the custard from the previous lunch.  By making the tasters come in the next day, experimenters were able to see memory over a longer period of time and see how much sensory information people retained.  The variety of sweetness, thicknesses, and aromas demonstrated a range of taste differences ranging from subtle (researchers determined the just noticeable difference for each aspect of the custard) to clearly different (double the just noticeable difference).

Morin-Audebrand et al. (2009) found that participants tended to overestimate thickness of the custard but were more accurate in recalling the sweetness of the original custard.  Surprisingly, participants were fairly accurate in rating the overly thick distractor puddings as such, despite their inability to actually remember the thickness of the custard.  Thus people might not quite know which level of thickness the actual pudding was, but they know it wasn’t as thick as the most extreme custard distractor.  The majority of participants had trouble distinguishing between distractor and original cherry aroma custards, meaning aroma was not a telling marker for sensory memory (at least for cherry custard).

It was sweetness that was by far the most accurately remembered.  Morin-Audebrand et al. (2009) concluded that food memory differs across different sensory aspects of food.  Other studies have found that participants have a stronger memory for thickness when tested with yogurt and breakfast drinks, and a more accurate memory of bitterness when tested with orange juice, but a less accurate memory of sweetness for both foods.  This supports the idea that memory of sensory aspects is actually influenced by the foods themselves.  Expectation may influence memory of certain aspects of food, unintentionally causing our attention to focus on important aspects of foods–such as thickness of a drink compared to thickness of a custard—and influence what we remember.  Our sensory memories might also be influenced by previous experiences with said foods, supporting evidence that our minds create an expectation for how a food should taste/feel/smell and this expectation could influence our responses on sensory memory tests.  While I’m not sure I’ve ever eaten cherry custard, in the Netherlands, where the experiments were conducted, this food is widely available and sold in stores so members of the study might have more sensory memories about it.

Other studies that Morin-Audebrand et al. (2009) referenced discussing food memory research included the finding that the elderly have a tendency to perceive several attributes of soup as less intense than they remembered the original food to have been (thus overestimating the original food), whereas young people underestimated the intensity of the original food.  These results support the idea that age influences memories for food, as well as the foods themselves influence the aspects of said foods that are most accurately remembered.  The correlation between age and overestimation of food intensity may indicate more than just the original food influencing memory or it may indicate changing taste buds or sensory perception, though this was not discussed in the article.  Perhaps with age and increased experience with food, we develop an exaggerated memory of foods we ate because we have tried so many forms of the food and created a memory of the ideal version of the food.

Morin-Audebrand et al. (2009) also found that good discrimination between the original custard and the distractor custards (potentially indicating a discerning palate) did not indicate increased accuracy in the memory test.  Thus a person might be able to tell the difference between two very similar samples of the custard, pinpointing that one is slightly sweeter or thicker, but not know which is the actual custard from the day before.  The study also found the reverse was true; poor discerning taste buds for the different distracting custards did not indicate poor memory of the taste of the original custard.  Thus a person may be capable of discerning the differences between a variety of custards, but unable to recall the taste of the original custard.  Thus if I did a taste test between Haagen Daz and Ben and Jerry’s vanilla ice cream, I might be able to tell the two foods apart and name the subtle differences, but not necessarily remember which ice cream is from Ben and Jerry’s based on previous memories of it.  So when someone asks me who made which one, I can stall and describe the differences in sweetness or thickness, but not necessarily remember which one tastes like Haagen Daz.

These results demonstrate interesting disconnects between taste and memory, suggesting that food memories are far more complex than psychologists give them credit for.  The results of this study raise more questions than they answer, but the idea that participants remember different aspects of a food more accurately depending on the food is one that many studies could expand on to improve our understanding of the overlap between attention and taste in memory formation.  Next time, pay attention to the subtle aspects of your favorite food, see if it lives up to your expectation.  If not, maybe conduct a taste test and gather all different versions of your favorite food (post-finals celebration?) to see if you can remember just which version you’ve been claiming as your favorite all these years.

Reference

Morin-Audebrand, L., Laureati, M., Sulmont-Rossé, C., Issanchou, S., Köster, E. P., & Mojet, J. (2009). Different sensory aspects of a food are not remembered with equal acuity. Food Quality and Preference, 20(2), 92-99. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.foodqual.2007.09.003

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  1. May 9th, 2013 at 17:14 | #1

    This made me think of how you can be absolutely certain that you hate a certain food, but when you try it again its not that bad. For example, I remember mushrooms having a very slimy, icky, texture and therefore do not eat them. But if I were to eat a mushroom again, perhaps it would not actually taste like this. It is also interesting that we remember some aspects of food better than others. Our memory plays so many tricks on us- who knew it could even make us misremember something as basic as how food tastes!

  2. May 12th, 2013 at 15:04 | #2

    This article makes me wonder about how and why we remember certain aspects of food. The custard section of the experiment indicated that sweetness was remembered better. From an evolutionary standpoint, it is interesting to wonder if remembering sweetness is more important to our survival rather than a factor such as thickness. Or maybe it is because we can also smell something that is sweet and also taste it, therefore incorporating more senses that will aid in creating the memory.

  3. May 12th, 2013 at 16:10 | #3

    This article has made me second guess my recollection of some of my favorite foods. As someone with a self-proclaimed “sweet tooth,” I feel like I would be able to remember the qualities (such as texture and aroma) of my favorite sweet foods with fairly high accuracy. Perhaps I cannot! Who knew that false memory could be applied food? On a less related note, I think that food plays a huge role in culture and helps us discriminate between different cultures. This makes me wonder how well we actually remember of foods from different cultures (since we probably have less expectations of these foods due to a lack of previous exposure). Just some….food for thought.

  4. May 18th, 2013 at 13:49 | #4

    The findings surprised me a little bit. I always think of taste and smell as being linked, and I know smell tends to be a really accurate memory trigger. I wonder if tastes can trigger episodic memories as well.

  5. May 18th, 2013 at 15:50 | #5

    I found this topic to be very interesting because it is something I never really stopped to think about, but it is definitely relevant in my day-to-day life. Every time I crave one of my favorite foods, I will wonder if I am even remembering the taste exactly. I would be curious to know if liking the food in the taste test would make a difference? It seems like it would because a person might notice a dislike for the distractors and know that it wasn’t the original they were tasting.

  6. Karlyn Donovan
    May 18th, 2013 at 21:38 | #6

    This is a really fascinating topic. Like Anna, this made me think about trying new foods and foods that I have told my self I will never eat again! How might they taste now? It also made me think about all the times I compare the dining hall food to homemade food. I tell myself that the dining hall pasta isn’t nearly as good as my mom’s dish but this makes me rethink how well I am remembering how my mom’s dish actually tasted.

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