Christmas food anxiety? Plate colour can influence picky eaters’ taste perception

Are there picky eaters in your family? If so, Christmas might be the perfect opportunity to pull out the Willow pattern crockery or those blue bowls hiding at the back of the cupboard.

Because the truism, ‘you eat with your eyes first’, is certainly the case for “picky eaters”, according to a study published in Food Quality and Preference.

Researchers from the University of Portsmouth, UK investigated whether changing bowl or plate colour could affect picky eaters’ perceptions of how food tastes.

They found chips served in blue bowls were considered saltier and more desirable compared to other colours.

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While it may sound frivolous, there is a serious side to the research.

People with “food neophobia” – a reluctance to eat or try new foods – may consume fewer than 20 different food items over their lives, potentially leading to nutritional deficiencies and health problems. There are social implications too, with the potential for mealtimes to lead to conflict or anxiety, the paper says.

The study notes that research into picky eating commonly focusses on children, even though around 18% of adults are considered picky eaters.

Co-author Dr Lorenzo Stafford says “… restricted diets can lead to nutritional deficiencies as well as health problems like heart disease, poor bone health and dental issues. There is also a social cost because normally enjoyable moments between family members can easily turn into stressful, anxious, and conflict-causing situations when picky eaters feel ashamed or pressured to eat food.”

In the experiment, 47 young adult participants completed two questionnaires: one on factors influencing food choice and the second on food neophobia (responding to questions like, ’I am very particular about the foods I eat’).

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The group of 20 picky eaters and 27 non-picky eaters, then consumed snacks served in red, white and blue coloured bowls and were asked to rate each snack’s saltiness, flavour intensity and desirability.

Each of the bowls contained the same snack – salt and vinegar chips – from a 25g bag shared evenly between the three bowls.

The colour of the bowl affected how picky eaters perceived taste, but not for the non-picky eaters.

For the picky eater group, the same brand of salt and vinegar chips served in red or blue bowls were considered saltier than those in white bowls.

The desirability of the snacks was highest for chips served in blue bowls, and lowest for red.

“Through further research we could determine ways to help positively affect a person’s diet, and as a result their mental and physical health,” Stafford says. 

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