A Matter of Taste

Montclair State Psychology Professor Debra Zellner's research shows that the pairing of food and how it’s arranged on the plate helps determine how much the diners likes it – findings that could have implications for helping people eat healthier. After conducting studies in the campus Chemical Senses and Hedonics Laboratory with simple dishes such as hummus with carrots and pita chips and chicken tenders with either chips or lima beans, Zellner partnered with the Culinary Institute of America to test gourmet meals. "There’s only so much I can do with meals as a researcher. I’m not a chef," she says. "Chefs make art on the plate – does that make the food taste better or just look better?"

A matter of tasteSo chefs at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., prepared a gourmet meal of chicken, brown rice and green beans almondine on two separate nights – one night serving the dish artistically presented, spiraling the sliced chicken atop the brown rice with the green beans placed in a lattice pattern around the plate. The next night, the same dish was served in a more "traditional" style with the chicken in the middle and rice and beans next to it, Zellner says.

The results were fairly conclusive: Diners served the artistic and beautifully styled plates raved more about the food. The brown rice in particular was described as the most delicious they’d had ever tasted, but the diners with the traditional plates did not react that way. Her earlier research had found that when a food is paired with foods a diner already likes, it tastes better than when paired with less appealing foods. Her research could be used in ways to encourage people to make healthier food choices – making healthy food more appealing simply by pairing it with something tasty and serving it artistically. "It could make a big difference in getting people to eat healthier," she says.

She hopes to take a sabbatical next year to team up the Vetri Foundation (founded by Philadelphia Chef Marc Vetri), which runs an elementary school lunch program. She will work to find effective ways to encourage children to be more open to new and healthy foods. "The research could have positive real-world applications," she says.