Growing up, kids are told to sit down at the table while eating. Far from just being about good manners, science is now discovering how standing up while eating can change taste perception, temperature sensation and even how much is eaten. Welcome to the weird world of altered taste perceptions which is what I’ll be exploring in this blog post.
Taste is one of the five key senses. It happens when a substance in the mouth reacts chemically with taste receptor cells found on taste buds. Sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami are the five well-characterised tastes. But there is growing evidence that we may even have a sixth taste and that’s for fat.
Taste though is more than just the sum of these defined tastes. You also have to factor in smell, texture and temperature. Because all of that combined is what gives us our perception of taste and flavour of food. Just one example of how they are all related is if the sense of smell is impaired by a stuffy blocked nose then the perception of taste is usually dulled as well.
This post though isn’t going to be a masterclass on taste physiology. Instead, I want to delve into another aspect of physiology that can affect taste: and that’s the vestibular system.
The vestibular system is the sensory apparatus in your inner ear. It helps the body maintain its postural equilibrium and gives us our sense of balance. The vestibular system is often referred to as the sixth sensory system. Anyone with a vestibular system out of whack can experience dizziness, vertigo and imbalance.
Body orientation, balance and taste
So, what sort of effect could the vestibular system play in influencing eating sensations? This is more than an academic question. There is a growing trend for more food to be eaten ‘on the go’. That means fewer traditional meals eaten at a table and more eaten while moving from place to place or even getting in a quick meal standing up before moving on to the next pressing engagement of the day.
Scientists are now questioning if there could be something inherently different about standing up compared to sitting down that can affect taste perception and consumption of food.
The theory is that when people experience some form of stress or discomfort, food does not taste as good. Standing up is thought to cause a mild stress to the body. So how much could this stress influence the experience of eating? Over a series of six different experiments involving several hundred volunteers, researchers explored standing versus sitting on food taste and enjoyment, temperature perception, and volume of food consumed.
Here is the summary of all those studies. People sitting down rated delicious tasting food such as freshly baked brownies more highly compared to when the same food was eaten standing up. When the same food was made ‘less delicious’ by adding in too much salt to the recipe, people sitting down rated the food poorly which wasn’t so surprising.
What was surprising though was that those standing up did not notice the taste difference from the extra saltiness. Side note: for parents struggling with fussy eaters, maybe it could even be worth trying to get kids to eat more unpleasant ‘healthy foods’ (I’m looking at you bitter broccoli) by having them eat standing up. Worth an at-home experiment.
It wasn’t just taste perception that was affected by standing versus sitting. Temperature perception of hot beverages such as coffee was rated stronger and more intense when sitting down compared to standing up.
And then there was the effect on how much of it was drunk. Drinking coffee while standing led to less of it being drunk.
Just to raise the stakes for how a mild stress can alter the eating experience, volunteers also sampled fruit snacks while carrying a shopping bag. The stress of carrying the extra weight meant that people sitting and standing rated the snack to be less tasty.
Whether it’s standing or engaging in some form of extra exertion such as carrying a heavy bag, the low-level stress placed on the body is enough to mute taste buds and affect appetite. This makes sense from a physiological point of view. Because when the body is under some form of stress, we are primed to be in a more ‘fight or flight’ orientation rather than in the opposite ‘rest and digest’ direction.
What it all means
So, let’s wrap all this up for how to make practical use of all this research. Take the time to appreciate eating for the experience it is. That means not just savouring food, but also being in the right physical space. And that means sitting down and giving your full attention to the food at hand, rather than slurping and munching on the go.