Picture worth a thousand words

Simply looking at images of food that appeals to you can make something taste better, according to a new study by scientists at the Nestle Research Center in Switzerland. Their findings, published in the journal PloS One, suggest that just looking at food produces brain activity that affects your perception of taste.

Participants were shown images of foods with varying calorie content. They were then given an unfamiliar taste on their tongue using 'electro-gustometry' (passing a gentle electric current through the tongue to create a unique and distinct metallic taste). Those taking part in the study found the taste more enjoyable after they had been shown images of high-calorie foods like pizzas or pastries, than when they were shown images of low-calorie foods like watermelons or green beans.

"An individual's evaluation of food before it is eaten is a crucial stage, not only for making nutritional choices but also affecting the experience of eating it," said Dr. Julie Hudry, the Nestle scientist who led the study.

The amount of calories in food was already known to be an important factor in determining people's motivation to eat and the pleasure that a particular food brings. The scientists measurements of electrical activity in the brain using electroencephalography, combined with the subjective data on which tastes the participants found the most enjoyable, led to the conclusion that looking at images of food influences subsequent taste perception.

"When eating, all our senses are stimulated simultaneously to create a unique perception of the food," Dr Hudry continued. "Taste is the primary driver for food acceptance or rejection, but our work suggests other sensory cues can provide the brain with essential information prior to food ingestion."