Food scientists find that victory tastes…oh, so sweet

Sweet victory: Forward Christian Hilbrich ’16 celebrates the go-ahead, game-winning goal (by forward Eric Freschi ’17, in the background) against Harvard, with 41 seconds remaining in the Jan. 23, 2015 game, at Lynah Rink, before 4,267 frenzied Cornell fans.

Vanquishing the agony of defeat, Cornell food scientists have a better grasp on the sweet, thrilling taste of victory. Ultimately, a new study reveals how a person’s emotional state – particularly in the competitive, wide world of sports – affects the perception of taste. And in the face of loss, the researchers found prompts for emotional eating.

“We determined how emotions arising from the outcome of college hockey games influenced the perception of sweet, salty, bitter, sour and umami (savory) taste, … in addition to hedonic (liking and disliking) responses to real foods,” said Robin Dando, assistant professor of food science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Dando, who with Corinna Noel, a doctoral student in the field of food science, published “The Effect of Emotional State on Taste Perception” in the journal Appetite, June 27.

Noel and Dando examined everyday variations of taste function and intensity ratings, and evaluated “hedonic” responses to food from approximately 550 rabid Cornell men’s hockey fans, whose spirits rise with the joy of wins and sink with miserable losses. “Emotional manipulations in the form of pleasantly or unpleasantly perceived real-life events can influence the perception of taste, driving hedonics for less acceptable foods,” said Dando. “These results imply that such modulation of taste perception could promote emotional eating.”



At the end of each home game, the fans were given a salted-caramel pretzel ice cream and a lemon-lime sorbet. Generally, the fans liked salted-caramel ice cream much better than the sorbet, but when the home team won, the sorbet enjoyed higher hedonic ratings. In other words, when the home team won, fans enjoyed the less-favored food as well.

“Sweet displayed a positive association with the fan’s satisfaction with the result,” said Dando, but the flavors salty, umami and bitter were not affected by wins or losses. Interestingly, sour taste showed the opposite: When fans were unhappy with the result, sour flavors tasted more sour.

The study shows that emotions experienced in everyday life can alter the hedonic experience of less-palatable food, implying a link to emotional eating, according to the researchers. Dando explained, “In times of negative affect, foods of a less pleasurable nature become even more unappealing to taste, as more hedonically pleasing foods remain pleasurable.

“Thus, in a state of negative emotion, we are more likely to eat hedonically pleasing – and thus likely unhealthy – foods,” he said. “This is why when the team wins, we’re okay with our regular routine foods, but when they lose, we’ll be reaching for the ice cream.”

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Joe Schwartz