Human taste buds are easily manipulated. With just a few simple words, researchers have found the same chocolate chip cookie can go from tasting scrumptiously sweet and moist to unpleasantly bitter and stale.
It all depends on what the label tells us.
When 58 adults from Ohio State University were given three cookies to sample, the ones labeled 'New and Improved' were deemed significantly tastier than the ones labeled 'Consumer Complaint'.
Both samples were perceived as having a different flavor and texture to the third cookie labeled 'Factory Typical', despite the fact that all three cookies were… exactly the same.
"We had both negative and positive bias – but the negative bias was much bigger," explains food scientist Christopher Simons from Ohio State University.
"On one hand, it's not surprising. On the other hand, the degree of the impact was really surprising."
When given a displeasing description, it seems our love for cookies can easily crumble away. Our brains immediately start looking for the negatives – a classic human bias that has been observed with other foods like cheese and vegetables.
What is interesting about this new study, however, is that it shows even highly likeable foods, like chocolate chip cookies, can leave a bad taste in our mouths when accompanied with certain words.
In a parallel study among 62 participants, researchers at Ohio State University found the perceived taste of more neutral products, like saltines, are also similarly impacted by the 'Consumer Complaint' label.
The ratings were based on a 9-point scale that ranged from "dislike extremely" to "like extremely", but participants were also allowed to leave comments if they so wished.
As you'd expect, the food samplers were more likely to leave a negative comment about the cookies and saltines than a positive one.
"These outcomes, being observed across both product types, suggest the impact of an applied negativity bias on the perception and liking of food products is robust," the authors write.
"However, given the products tested presently are relatively simple, further research should also examine the impact of applied negativity bias on more complex products."
If the results can be replicated in future studies with larger sample sizes and more varied product types, marketers might need to change their tactics. When a food product is consumer tested with various types of packaging, the more positive packaging could be hiding some serious dislikes that could be revealed with more negative packaging.
In the current study, for instance, not all the taste factors measured were altered by the labels.
Even when saltine crackers were labeled 'Consumer Complaint', they were still deemed to have the same aftertaste, color, aroma, saltiness, bitterness, butteriness and sweetness as the other saltines.
For cookies, some of the attributes that were unaffected by labels included color, vanilla flavor, chip amount, caramelized flavor, and chocolate flavor.
The authors can't say for sure whether the negative reviews of the cookies were revealing some real downsides of the product or if these downsides were imagined. Future research will be needed to tease that out.
But if they're real, then it might be worth testing consumer responses to a purposefully negative label before putting a product on the market.
Because of the human negativity bias, a negative label might actually sharpen our senses, ultimately allowing us to perfect a recipe.
The study was published in Food Quality and Preference.