Despite the fact that all of the diners in the present study were served exactly the same amount of the same food, there were clear and significant differences in terms of the enjoyment of the food, especially for the main course. The cutlery used to bring the food from plate to mouth, clearly an external factor to the food itself, substantially affected the participants’ ratings of the food. In particular, the main course was considered more artistic, was liked more, and the diners would have been willing to pay more for it when eating with the banquet cutlery, as compared to the group given the canteen cutlery. The dessert was liked more when it was served on a square black plate than when served on a round white plate instead (M = 5.6 vs. 4.8). However, in this case, no significant changes in terms of the sweetness or flavour intensity were reported.
Analysis of the data from the main course revealed significant differences for all three of the response measures: The food eaten with the aid of the banquet cutlery was liked significantly more (M = 5.7 vs. 5.1), was rated as significantly more artistic (M = 5.0 vs. 4.0), and the diners would have been willing to pay significantly more for it (M = £13.9 vs. £12.0). Bearing in mind that the diners in the present study all consumed the same food, these results demonstrate that the multisensory (i.e. the visual and/or haptic) properties of the cutlery can exert a significant effect on our enjoyment of food and on our perception of its value.
As observed in this study, there are several sensory properties of the cutlery that could possibly modulate the enjoyment of food. As mentioned earlier, the material properties of the cutlery (in terms of the metal used) can impact a diner’s perception of the intensity of certain basic tastes that are present in a food [5, 6]. However, the metal of the cutlery (stainless steel) was held constant in the present study. Rather, the appearance and feel of the cutlery seems to have been the essential variable that changed/enhanced the diners’ perception of the main course.2 While it is likely that the pleasantness (or aesthetic properties) of the cutlery can affect what people think about it, recent research3 has demonstrated that the weight of the utensil that is used to eat with can affect people’s ratings of food [3, 7, 14, 15]. These studies, however, were mainly conducted in the laboratory setting, and the effects of weight on perceived food quality has never been measured in a realistic dining setting.
The important differences in the ratings of the food observed by modifying the type of cutlery (differing in look and feel, with a significant difference in weight) suggest that the overall positive (or negative) values attributed to the cutlery implicitly modify the perceived enjoyment of the food. It could be argued that the diners’ feelings about the sensory properties of the cutlery were ‘transferred’ to the food—a phenomenon that often goes by the name of ‘sensation transference’ . This term has been used to describe the tendency for a given sensory attribute to be rated more positively than would otherwise be the case due to other positive sensory influences, thus transferring sensations from the container to the product. Note that other researchers have used the term ‘halo effect’ in order to describe a similar phenomenon [3, 22, 23]. Alternatively, the mechanism driving the effects observed in this study could be attentional in nature. Indeed, it could be hypothesized that the heavier weight of the eating utensils would have captured the attention of the diners more and thus heighten their awareness of the sensory properties of the food .
The diners (conference delegates) who came to eat at the dining room/restaurant of Edinburgh’s Sheraton Grand Hotel in the present study will likely have associated the venue with a high-end dining experience. It is therefore possible that those diners who were given the cheaper (lighter) cutlery to eat their main course with might implicitly have registered a mismatch between the cutlery and the environment in which that cutlery was being used .
While it now seems plausible that the weight and perceived value of the cutlery affect the enjoyment of the food, with perceived quality being transferred from the cutlery to the food in an implicit manner, further research is undoubtedly still needed in order to clarify which of the cutlery’s sensory properties affects the enjoyment of the food and, in particular, how weight, tactile, and visual aesthetics interact, and by which perceptual mechanisms.
While the present study provides evidence for the idea that the different elements that accompany the experience of eating influence the experience of the food, a few limitations should be mentioned. For example, the participants were not given a definition of what ‘artistic’ meant, and so some variability between participants in terms of their response to this item may be expected. Furthermore, the participants could decide where they wanted to sit, which may potentially have biased the results in that they may have grouped themselves as a function of common characteristics. Each table seated several participants, which could have led to a group effect in case comments about the cutlery were exchanged; this is the reason why, in sensory tests, care is taken so that each participant evaluates the stimuli alone.
Here, we would argue that naturalistic studies may require some trade-offs, given that laboratory studies have long been criticized for their lack of ecological validity. Measuring effects in realistic environments can be of interest despite the difficulty of gaining completely quantitative data, and we believe that the science of flavour and of dining could benefit from an integration of naturalistic with laboratory studies.
Further research could also assess the impact of the weight of the cutlery on perceived satiety, food intake, and consumption behaviour, which might be the fact why participants eating with the heavier/banquet cutlery responded more favourably to the questions regarding the food.
The results presented here reveal a simple but essential fact: The diners’ appreciation of the food is affected by the type of the cutlery used to eat (in this case, knife and fork were changed between experimental groups), in terms of liking, aesthetic value, and WTP for the food. In other words, a very common set of utensils, present on tables around the world, can potentially make the food ‘taste’ better (or worse). These results also bring further evidence to the notion that the shape and colour of the plate on which the food is served can affect how much diners enjoy food.
The methodological approach outlined here illustrates the potential of large-scale dining events to evaluate the responses of diners to a variety of cues of the eating experience. Results from studies such as the one reported here provide evidence to support the claim that, in the endeavor of creating a pleasurable meal, there is more to deliciousness than just the food on the plate. Indeed, cues as seemingly extraneous to the food experience as the tool that is used to bring the food from plate to mouth can enhance the perceived value and enjoyment of food. While we