NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Decorative flourishes normally reserved for high-end restaurants can make healthy foods seem more appealing anywhere, researchers say.
They tested the same meals presented differently to diners in a fine restaurant, and the foods seemed to taste better to participants when arranged in a creative pattern.
"I'm very happy that chefs are now looking at things like this, because people eat out more and more, so to have chefs being aware that what they do may have a long lasting effect on people's food choices is a good thing," lead study author Debra Zellner told Reuters Health.
Zellner is a researcher and professor in the psychology department at Montclair State University in New Jersey.
In previous studies, she's found that people were "turned on" by neatness and balance in the plating of food, but she wanted to see if stepping up the presentation to a professional level would make a difference, so she contacted the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, to invite them to collaborate.
"Chefs have all these ideas of what they should be doing and how they should be doing it - and they believe it matters to the consumer - but there's no data," Zellner said. "So, they were really interested in doing something."
A total of 91 diners were recruited to the Culinary Institute of America restaurant to eat a meal on one of two nights. There were 35 men and 56 women ranging in age from 20 to 74. The participants had a variety of occupations, but none worked in kitchens.
"There were all sorts of people, it was really a nice sample," Zellner said.
The diners were all served the same foods each night - sauteed chicken breast, brown rice pilaf and string beans with almonds, but the meal was plated two different ways. One night, the meals were the traditional way - with the sautéed chicken and sauce on the bottom half of the plate, rice pilaf in a mound in one upper quadrant and the green beans in the other upper quadrant.
Participants who arrived on the other night were served a fancier version of the meal, with the three foods in a spiraling pattern with the sauce drizzled around the perimeter of the plate.
On both nights, the participants filled out questionnaires before and after the meals, rated the foods for appearance and likeability, and were offered the chance to leave any open-ended comments.
The participants who received the more attractive presentation rated their liking for the foods overall as higher than those served the traditional meals, Zellner's team reports in the journal Appetite.
"We found that participants rated the two platings differently in attractiveness, but they didn't rate them differently for neatness," Zellner said. "This was crucial because of what we had found previously. The two presentations were equally neat and equally balanced."
When asked about the specific foods, the participants who were served the attractively plated meals gave higher ratings to the chicken and the brown rice, but there was no difference in rating for the green beans.
The brown rice pilaf garnered the most open-ended comments, with many more positive than negative.
Zellner said the results were encouraging, because the Culinary Institute of America is interested in promoting healthy food.
"Trying to get people to eat brown rice, as opposed to white rice, is a struggle sometimes," she said, "So it's encouraging that if presented in a very attractive way, you might get people to eat things they normally wouldn't, and that are actually healthy."
Lauren Graf, a clinical dietitian at Montefiore Medical Center in New York, was not involved in the study but wasn't surprised that the level of attractiveness and amount of care that went into food preparation influenced people's perception of flavor.
One reason the food may have been perceived as tasting better is because it came from a more expensive restaurant, she noted.
Graf said that people can improve the appearance of foods at home, too.
"You don't need to spend a ton of money on something to get it to look or taste good at home," she said. "Foods can look nice in an economical way - and can make you feel like it's fancier than it really is."
"Whoever is making dinner that night can take the time to plate it out, arrange the vegetables in a nice fashion and use nice plates," she said. Parsley can be used as a garnish or fresh herbs can be added to foods to make them prettier, she added.
Turning on just the right type of music could also help, according to the authors of another study published in the same issue of the journal.
"Earlier research has highlighted the influences of specific musical components such as tempo, volume, and pitch on eating and shopping behaviors, but little has been known about the effect of music genre on food perception and acceptability," Han-Seok Seo told Reuters Health in an email.
Seo, a researcher and professor in the Department of Food Science at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, led the study examining the impact of background music on perceptions of taste.
Seo and his team rearranged one music piece (Air on the G string) into four different genres: classical, jazz, hip-hop and rock. Each version was arranged as a solo performance and with multiple performers.
A total of 99 study participants were seated in individual sensory booths and given headphones. Each participant listened to either the solo performances or the group performances of all four genres of music.
At 45 seconds into each song, the participants were presented with either chocolate or bell pepper and asked to rate the flavor and intensity of the food from 0 (extremely unpleasant or weak) to 15 (extremely pleasant) or strong.
Participants liked both foods more while listening to the jazz version when compared to the hip-hop. Classical music didn't change the participants' impressions at all.
Seo suggests that food manufacturers and foodservice professionals could apply his results.
For example, "Based on current findings, chocolate companies may integrate their chocolate products with jazz-like musical pieces to magnify consumers' acceptability for the chocolates," he said.