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Can Packaging Design Influence the Taste of Food and Drink?

by Theresa Christine Johnson on 09/18/2017 | 4 Minute Read

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By: Adel Radwan

Packaging design aims to break from the noise on the shelf to capture our attention. It’s purpose is to create a “sensory” gap to incentivize us to:

  1. pick the product off the shelf and experience it up close, and if successful
  2. encourage us to try something new.

But what if packaging can do more than that? Would a beverage taste better if we purchased it in a glass versus a plastic bottle? Can food packaging and design influence our taste buds after we purchase the product?

Everyone shares an affinity to a particular food product or drink. A taste that transports us to a memorable place. Growing up, I remember dunking Marie tea biscuits in a warm cup of ruby red Ceylon tea. My grandmother always sweetened the tea with a ridiculous amount sugar, and when I bit off those soft, sweet, tea soaked cookies, I was instantly content.

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The Marie tea biscuit is a product that crossed several cultural borders. A bright red cylindrical flow-pack wrapper. With the renowned “Marie” lettering embossed on the cookie. That cookie package reminded me of home. That was my visual cue for feeling at home in this new and unexplored space.

Food marketing has increasingly become a complex field of study that involves sophisticated sensory and psychological models. Gastrophysics* is a research area that explores the impact of various sensory faculty like holding, seeing and even smelling can have on our perceived taste, quality and value of the products we purchase. As we demand richer, more luxurious and other non-tangible features from products we consume, manufacturers turn to gastrophysics. They study how different labelling, packaging and other physical attributes incorporated in packaging design can influence the taste of a particular food item or drink.

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In three independent studies, researchers examined the shape of beverage receptacles on consumers’ perception of taste, fragrance, and flavour. In one study, researchers gathered a group of participants to evaluate the flavor intensity of a cola drink when served in glass as opposed to a plastic bottle. Participants rated the beverage to be sweeter in a glass bottle. While participants given the plastic bottle rated the beverage to have a more carbonated taste. This study's results though interesting, also noted that the weight of the bottle may have played a role in influencing the results.  

A second study examined the taste of beer among participants who consumed the beverage from glasses with varying degrees of curvature. On average, the flavor intensity of beer was reported to be around 6% higher in curved glasses than straight edged glasses. In a similar study, participants reported their wine to have a stronger flavor intensity in rounded wine glasses than angular alternates.

Lastly, a final experiment looked at the impact of the exterior texture of drinking receptacles on coffee drinkers. The results revealed that participants assigned a bitterness rating to their coffee on average 27% higher when served in an angular edge cup more than a smooth-edged cup.

These three studies present a compelling case for food and drink manufacturers to carefully study the physical and chemical composition of their packaging with respect to the consumer’s taste and environment. However, culture plays a significant role in how we consume and perceive a certain food and drink products. Our relationship with food is described by Dr. Rebecca West of North Dakota State University:

“Cuisines organize our food choices into cultural as well as familial menus…This is what cuisine does for individuals; for nations, it creates an identity as well as an economy.”**

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Visuals, colors, information and context are all in play for a few seconds when Joe or Jane consumer decides to try a new product off a retail shelf. Food marketing professionals aim to achieve that kind of connection Marie biscuits has with many loyal customers. I for one will always dunk my tea biscuits in sweet tea every time I feel the need to journey back to my memorable place.

*Spence C, Van Doorn G. Does the Shape of the Drinking Receptacle Influence Taste/Flavour Perception? A Review. Beverages. 2017; 3(3):33.

**Natural Flavors: Rhetorical Stories of Food Labels - West, Rebecca. North Dakota State University, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2017. 10286048.

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Adel RadwanAdel Radwan is an agribusiness and food marketing consultant helping commercial farms, food manufacturers, and FMCG brands develop strategic brand and market positioning, identify marketing communications priorities, and execute marketing plans to create successful product lines.